SITP, Part 3: I Heart Sioux City. Mostly.

July 12, 2010

Because all good things must come to an end, and we must resume talking about violins, it’s time to finish up Saturday in the Park.  SITP had a few issues. But then, what outdoor event doesn’t?

Rant: There are never enough port-o-potties. They could put out 1,000 and they would all be full. And there would still be lines.

LOL moment: the code for the Sioux City airport is SUX.  Now that’s an airport I’d want to frequent regularly.

Rant: Santana’s crew installed a lovely HD big screen on the back wall of the shell. It would have improved the experience immensely if said screen had been operational for all the bands, not just for Santana. So, it might be worthwhile for the organizers, or the city, to invest in a screen and hire a crew to man the cameras.

Rant: There needed to be more shuttle buses.  We opted to walk the two miles back to the car at 11:30 at night instead of waiting in line for two hours with an amped but tired pre-schooler.

Rave: Sioux City scores lots of points for a safe street to walk those two miles back, apparently accomplished with invisible police (since the the visible ones were all on duty inside the park, or directing traffic).

Rant: If the park is going to segregate beer drinkers, then the management should also restrict smoking to designated areas, instead of relying on those stupid signs telling us that the State of Iowa has a Smoke-Free Air Law and urging people to please obey. I don’t think the law applied to that event, but if you must, either enforce it or designate an area for smokers. Frankly, I was more bothered by some of the really nasty smelling wood that the barbeque pits were burning.   It was foul, like really cheap cigars.

Idea! (Ding!) It could be a real moneymaker if you install a coin-op system on the port-o-potties.

Extended Rant on Profiteering: A 20-ounce bottle of water was $2, and there wasn’t a visible drinking fountain in sight.  Coolers were banned.

We knew from the festival website that there would be ATMs, just in case we ran out of cash.  What the website conveniently forgot to mention — The Dad happened to overhear when he was in line buying something — was that the ATMs were located in the beer tents.

Two issues are, or should be, immediately evident. First, you had to be 21 to enter the beer tent. Second, beer tent admission was $5 per person. Soooo. If you are under 21 and out of cash, you’ve got a problem. If you are legal, you have to buy a beer in order to access the ATM. If you’re a recovering alcoholic, you’ve got a problem. If you don’t want a beer — only cash — you’ve got a problem.  If you’ve got kids in tow, you’ve got a problem. If you are out of cash, you have a problem. Um, Houston?  Granted, if you had a “problem” you could fight the wall-to-wall sea of people to get back on the shuttle, go back downtown and find another ATM, which is really welcoming and hospitable to the tens of thousands of people who came significant distances to be part of the day. That is just greedy and mean. Period. (And possibly illegal, since it was a public park?) [Note: if my reading of the situation is incorrect, please feel free to set the record straight. We didn’t need to use an ATM, and I didn’t hear about their location until the walk back to the car.]

Then The Dad got to thinking about how much money a body could make selling pop or popcorn or hot dogs at an event like this. It’s obscene. Some of the smaller vendors, I’m guessing, made more in one day than they do in a week, because people were forced to pay twice the normal amount for food or drinks.  (For the record, I noticed several in my immediate area who had snuck food into the park in their backpacks, which were, according to the signage, subject to search.)

I know the vendor’s kids have to eat too, and he has to pay his employees and the suppliers and the rent, but isn’t there a limit? On the other hand, prices are not as bad, or as volatile,  in the Midwest as they are on either coast.  I guess we’ve got it pretty good, when you consider the other options.

Overall though, the good outweighed the bad. I saw two guys on my Concert Bucket List for less than what a single ticket would have cost to one of their regular shows.  We’ll be back at some point. Thank you, Sioux City, for a wonderful day!


Opinion: Saturday In the Park; Sioux City, Iowa; July 3, 2010.

July 7, 2010

As promised earlier, a sort-of review of our trip to Sioux City last Saturday to see Steve Winwood and Carlos Santana. This post has nothing whatsoever to do with violins, if it matters.  However, it might tie in later, say in part 3.

Have you ever gotten Goosebumps?  The kind that are the size of manhole covers and stay with you for several minutes, refreshing with every new song?  Sioux City’s 20th anniversary Saturday in the Park festival provided countless moments like that.

Grandview Park was the venue for this free admission festival, with its magnificent old trees and rare views of stars at night (literally — there wasn’t any lighting except for the stage lights and vendors.)  The bandshell, a fixture of many midwestern towns, was larger than most and accommodated everyone’s equipment and personnel with ease.

Steve Winwood opened for Carlos Santana as the headline mainstage acts.  There was another, smaller stage that catered to alternative, punk and rap fans. I’m guessing it was mostly local bands, but there wasn’t any coverage in the paper, so if you know more about this part, feel free to leave a comment.  And the other mainstage bands were varied and excellent.  I rarely buy music anymore — it has to be really spectacular for me to even consider it — but I’d buy much of their stuff.  If you don’t want to read this whole post, I can sum it up the entire day in a word: Awesome!  Or in Santana’s word: Perfect!

We  — The Dad, Eric and I — arrived about three hours later than we had planned (normal for us) and as a result, got worse seats than we had planned.  We couldn’t see the left side of the stage, but we also weren’t up to traipsing through people’s blankets and stuff to finding a closer or better vantage point. So.

I really, really wanted to hear the opening band, Indigenous,  a blues-based Nakota band from Yankton, but we were too late.  Drat.  Indigenous has some excellent music available and I am going to make a point of seeing them live, soon.

When we got there, Eric was starving.  So he and The Dad went off to find sustenance (and something for me to drink) while I caught the end of the day’s second band, Amanda Shaw and the Cute Guys.  The band hails from New Orleans.  Miss Amanda is a fiddler/vocalist/jumper-around-on-stager.  The band was OK.  I mean, she’s not Alison Krauss or Mark Wood.  Or Charlie Daniels.  The cover of The Devil Went Down To Georgia was a bit mild.  Overall, a good band but not my favorite of the day.

The third group, Los Angeles-based Fitz and the Tantrums was spectacular.  I don’t know why they aren’t a top 40 group.  Because there isn’t a guitar (?!)  in the group? Any producers out there want to venture a guess?  They were a little overdressed for the weather — dark suits and ties, a la The Blues Brothers; the drummer eventually shed his jacket — but their cover of Sweet Dreams was one of the best I’ve ever heard.  Come to think of it, the suits and ties were rather Lennox-y.  Lennox-esque?  Yeah.  And The Tantrums are putting out suitably impressive stuff of their own.  I’m looking for them to make it big really soon.  Take a listen.

Next up was Michael Franti and Spearhead. They got plenty of space in the paper so I won’t give much here,  except to say that Franti jumped up on an instrument crate about twenty feet in front of me to sing, and I got video (!) before the sea of Fran-atics closed around so that no one else could see.  Except that my phone refuses to tell me where it is.  I’m sure I’ll find it eventually.  (The Dad was suitably impressed when I told him later.)  Spearhead’s cover of Billie Jean was a little out of place and wasn’t as good as the reviewer would have you believe.  I was there.  Heh.  Mr. Franti can moonwalk pretty well though, and kick a soccer ball.  And play guitar. And dance. He definitely won the Red Bull trophy for “Most Energetic Performer”.  I wonder though — Spearhead seemed like an odd choice as a warm up for Winwood.  It was good, but I personally preferred The Tantrums.

It took a little longer to change the set for Steve Winwood than for the groups prior, but it was worth it.  Mr. Winwood turned 63 in May, but he sounds like he’s still in the Spencer Davis Group.  Here’s the same song thirty years later. It didn’t sound any different, except for a much smaller band.  My gosh, what a voice!  Here’s another example.   If anything, Winwood’s voice has matured, but in a good way. It sounds richer, fuller and more in control than it did forty years ago.  It was surreal, sorta like sitting there listening to all my CDs, on The Dad’s exquisite ESS Tempest speakers.  Except it was LIVE!  Winwood’s set was a little short, which was a real shame.  So many great songs, such an incredibly versatile and virtuosic musician, so little time.  It was threatening to storm (there was thunder) and I think they ended early because of that.  People started leaving in droves.  Their loss.  The sky rumbled, the clouds raced through, it sprinkled about 15 drops and then…

Santana took the stage.

I have always thought that, as a guitarist, Mr. Santana should have shared the “God” billing with Eric Clapton.  The man can shred.

Santana’s band is about as close to perfection as you can get: three drummers, plus two lead vocalists contributing maracas and tambourines. Add a trumpet, trombone, keyboardist and Santana and you have a band that literally sounds ageless, timeless and limitless.  And two of the drummers alternately sat in with Spearhead and (I think) Amanda Shaw, who in turn assisted on one of Spearhead’s songs.  I wonder if it’s as cool for young, up-and-comers to work with established artists like Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo, as it is for young violinists to work with, say, Itzhak Perlman or Midori?

I read an interview a long time ago where Santana likened playing music to lovemaking. (Just thought I’d throw that out to see if you were paying attention.)  (This isn’t the exact article but he says sort of the same thing.  Also, Santana’s description of how to spin out a melodic line is priceless. And funny.)  And that is part of what makes him — and other lyrically oriented guitarists — so satisfying to hear.  And watch.  Because if you’re like me, seeing how he does it and trying to figure out the mechanics, are just as important as hearing what he’s doing.

Again, the price of admission ended up being price-less after hearing Santana’s cover of Cream’s White Room.  Clapton hasn’t played it like that in years. (Said while kneeling reverently toward Crossroads.)  The last time I saw him really shred White Room was in 2005 at Royal Albert Hall (I’ve seen it live two times since then, as well).   The video is here.  We  — The Dad and I, and captive-listener Eric — were sitting directly stage right of the band in the first balcony, but unfortunately just out of camera range.

Watching Santana is a sight to behold.  If you didn’t click the link earlier, do it now.  Or nowThis one is good too.  (Sorry — it’s hard to pick a favorite!)  He makes it look easy, as is typical with truly great musicians.  When you watch guitar gods, it looks like they aren’t working at all, and it seems to be a pretty common trait to all of them:  Santana, Clapton, SRV, Hendrix, Jimmy Page, B.B. King, Chet Atkins, etc.  Economy of motion allows them to have complete control over what they are doing, and over what their guitars are doing.  It’s hard to do that when you’re jumping around like a maniac on the stage.  It’s also really hard to describe the mastery involved and what it looks like.  Suffice it to say that Santana’s technique looks like a combination of pure concentration and pure joy.  With a dose of axe-wielding and shredding when required and appropriate.  Because, you know how SOME concertgoers don’t think they’ve been to a concert if they haven’t seen the required theatrics on stage.  It’s amazing to me how many rock guitarists, the REALLY good ones, are ultra-conservative and reserved.

And then there were fireworks.  Oooh! Aaah!

Then we walked two miles back to the car, instead of waiting for two hours for the shuttle bus to take us back to the car.  And Eric has formally been initiated for surviving his first rock concert (if you don’t count Cream, ZZ Top, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy and Anthony Gomes while he was percolating).

But “free” always ALWAYS infers the opposite, and this festival sticks with tradition, giving “free” an entirely new meaning. That’s another post.

Awesome Search Terms, Vol. 4: DMPS Fine Arts Cuts

April 26, 2010

The vast majority of searching that led to this site over the past month has involved some variation of the Des Moines Public Schools and its fine arts cuts.  Half of the district’s music teachers were on the chopping block. The news reported that nearly 80 classroom teachers were pink-slipped.  I know that at least one was a string teacher, who just happen to teach in a lower-income area of town.  I assume there are many more.  The Board will finalize the excessing in May.  Here is an update, even though it may be old news to some readers, and my comments based on what I have read.  I could say much, much more, but I’d never finish and my brain would probably erupt into flames, with much smoke and ickyness.

1. The State of Iowa came up with some money for K-12.
The K-12 system seems to have gotten what the Governor promised them for this year. Moving right along…

2. Some of the fine arts cuts will be restored.
At a reduced level? What the heck does that mean? They can only fund a string quartet, a wind quintet and a drummer at each school? They’re going to merge schools? Students will have to compete for spots? The poorest schools get left out? The lowest scoring schools get left out? This smells like code for what I wrote about here: the district will surreptitiously find a way to justify the elimination at a future date by restricting enrollment to the point that offering it can no longer be justified financially.  We’re still finding out exactly who won’t be there next year.

3.  It appears that some of the people who were elected to find a solution to the mess are only interested in fault-finding and backbiting, even as they accuse others of the same. It is human nature to want to fire back immediately at what could be perceived as a personal attack. Our students are expecting us to act like the adults we claim to be. They are watching how this is being handled, and we need to be really careful what we teach them.

4. This will happen again next year, or a couple of years from now. Historically, when a program is targeted for elimination, it is eventually eliminated. Bank on it. At this point it’s merely a question of how and when.

5. No one is really interested in coming up with a permanent funding solution, besides deflecting the Board’s responsibility for its decisions onto the state legislature. Dumping the problem on the legislature doesn’t solve it, and the students can’t wait until it happens again for us to have a plan of action.

6. Roses to Senator Mike Gronstal for having the guts to call a spade a spade. He writes, “The truth is that the governor and the state Legislature repeatedly assured school districts … that K-12 school funding for the next school year would be at least the governor’s recommended levels.

“Ignoring those assurances, Des Moines school officials deliberately set out to scare parents, teachers and students with doomsday scenarios that were irresponsible, inflammatory and, well, pure fiction.

“…school officials conspired to unnecessarily scare families, teachers, parents and residents of Des Moines with irresponsible budget scenarios that included chilling stories of record-setting layoffs, the shuttering of popular programs and other flights of fancy.”

I’m glad he said it, not me, but he left out the statewide impact of decisions made in Des Moines. I’ve pointed out before that DMPS budget handling could be a major issue for residents of neighboring districts, who look to Des Moines to set precendent and provide leadership. For me, specifically, it doesn’t bode well for my district (Norwalk) ever getting a string program, even though the long-range plan is to reclassify as a 4-A district (we are currently the largest 3-A district in the state).

Board President Connie Boesen attempted to refute Sen. Gronstal’s assertions in her own letter to the editor (please link to her letter from his letter): “District officials clearly and repeatedly stated at community forums and other settings that the $30 million in budget reductions were based on two primary factors: the loss of all federal stimulus dollars ($14 million) and no backfill of the state’s 10 percent across the board cuts ($17 million).”

Counterpoint: Why was this even a point of discussion? The money to which she’s referring was already gone. We KNEW it wasn’t going to be there. Everyone was aware that the stimulus was one-time money. Everyone knew it was temporary. Something is seriously wrong with the bookkeeping if no one could see that there was a problem before the stimulus money or the previous budget cuts. Something doesn’t add up with the explanations. I can’t wrap my brain around this one. The money couldn’t be counted anymore now than two years ago, so how can you blame the budget cuts on it? The across-the-board cuts can’t be restored. Even if all the cuts were refunded, the money would revert to reserves, because that’s where it came from in the first place. The District seems to have no solid rationale for either the necessity or the depth of the cuts, because the financial situation is essentially the same as it was two years ago, save for the second across-the-board cut, which happened this fiscal year.

She continues: “Had the Legislature made more timely decisions on K-12 funding instead of waiting until the last moment, the district would not have had to plan for the worst. No “face to face” meeting … occurred where budget assurances were made.”

Counterpoint: The assurances were all over the news and newspapers, whether they were made in person or not. And — I may be wrong about this — but it seems that historically, the legislature waits until sometime in March to start working on the upcoming education bill. It has been reported that the budget process has been ongoing since well before Christmas.  And the media was reporting aspects of the “worst case scenario” budget back in January, before the legislature convened. Those January reports mentioned some cuts to fine arts, but didn’t include the total decimation of elementary music.

And finally, Ms. Boesen writes: “Throughout the transparent budget process, our stakeholders learned the facts and became involved by making their voices heard at the Capitol — voices that played a critical role in final legislative action reducing our shortfall from $30 million to $11 million.”

Counterpoint: In fact, the student and parent “lobbyists” were asked to leave by Capitol police because they were making too much noise in violation of the “no music in the rotunda while the chambers are in session” rule. While it may have impressed upon the legislators the importance of keeping their funding promises, it’s sort of a stretch to say that the “lobbying” had much to do with the final dollar amount. It certainly had little to do with the programs that are scheduled to be cut. Since no one has yet produced a paper trail that would validate one position or the other, we are left to wonder what the real story is.

Counterpoint: Transparent? The unmoderated comments following Ms. Boesen’s letter don’t seem to indicate that. The Register reported just the opposite:  “Also, at least one resident asked for greater transparency in the budgeting process. Jim Johnson, an organizer of AMOS [A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy], said he was discouraged when students came home last week with letters from their schools that outlined the district’s updated plans. He said when he called the superintendent, she told him a final plan didn’t exist.

“We did what you told us we needed to do,” Johnson said. “We lobbied. We e-mailed. We called … We are not just any citizen. We earned it. And to be told you can’t have that information is a slap in the face.”

Counterpoint:  Facts? The only facts that are truly evident are that the DMPS is short on money, long on programs (ones that aren’t very important or fiscally responsible at this time) and has people in charge of finances who may not have a clear grasp of what education is all about. The complete axing of an entire program was not a transparent process. Entirely too many people were completely shocked at the news. If you’re going to use the words “transparent” and “facts” in the same sentence, you’d better be able to back it up with paper and numbers. I shake my head when people suggest with much hand-wringing that calling and emailing legislators will create the magical pot-o’-gold that every district covets. I come back to an earlier question: Why is it the legislature’s responsibility to solve the DMPS budget shortfall? And why is it necessary to pick and choose facts? Transparency means everything is viewable.


7. This is going to get worse. That guest editorial I mentioned earlier? I offered it to the Des Moines Register. It was rejected, with the explanation that it wasn’t newsworthy, that things could change, that nothing was final. If I didn’t still have some faith in journalism, I’d say it smelled like collusion. Unless the editors understood the same thing from the beginning that I did: the continuation of the programs had absolutely nothing to do with the available money.  Except that next time, it won’t be just the elementary music programs. It’ll be the whole shebang. It won’t be just elementary PE, or special education or ESL teachers. It will be everything that doesn’t show up on a test.

The parents are not the problem. The students are not the problem. The teachers and their license specialties are not the problem. The legislature is not the problem. By process of elimination, that leaves district leadership. Part of the great thing about local school control is that spending decisions are made locally. But it also means that bad decisions are dealt with locally and leaders must be held accountable. Accountability is why we have elections. I hope that the voters in the DMPS will look carefully at who is setting budgets and policy for educating these kids who will be our next generation of leaders, workers, innovators, parents and teachers. Decide where the priorities should be and vote ’em.

Now. All this is easy for me to say. I don’t live in Des Moines. My kiddo probably isn’t going to be affected by today’s decisions. But for all I know, in five years, all the kids in my district will have been affected in some way by what DMPS does this year. Many, many people want to help effect a solution. But most of them can’t get information, or get someone to help organize a working group, or just someone to listen. I, for one, would like to learn more about the overall funding process and how programs are paid for.  Knowing the process can help figure out the solution. Is DMPS leadership really willing to work with users and teachers to save one of its most important educational tools? The best way to refute and redeem yourselves is to work with us.

I’m really a pretty nice person. I can be much more tactful and diplomatic than I have been in this post. I promise I won’t bite the children. But I can help get things done. If you’re serious about getting something started, whether you are a DMPS employee, fired teacher, board member, parent with extreme leadership skills, local business person with contacts, doesn’t really matter, please email me. I’m not interested in arguing semantics. I’m interested in learning and helping save elementary music permanently. I’m tired of watching the threats against the program I cut my teeth in. It’s not about the money. It’s about the principle. Jim Brauninger’s legacy is at stake and this whole thing is just plain wrong. And I’m honestly not trying to be overly critical. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not in the loop and I don’t have a clue about all the details. There is more at work than anyone really knows.  All I’m saying is that we need to get everything on the table, honestly, no-holds-barred, with all the numbers and facts and find a solution before it’s too late for the students.

As I was getting ready to log in to post this, I found out from a local news report that Sandy Tatge was one of the teachers who was let go. I had the great privilege of learning under her baton when she directed the Des Moines Youth Symphony during the early 1980s.  She’s been at Roosevelt since then as well.  So, this tells me that this doesn’t really have anything to do with the elementary orchestras either, and it doesn’t have anything to do with seniority, as the district is trying to claim.

Please excuse me while I go cry.