The Harmony Club
Have you ever been part of an experience where everything worked out without a misstep? Have you ever been part of a project where everything went beyond the expectations and the output was greater than anyone could have imagined?
Hyperboles aside, I can proudly attest to a moment in 2018 when I can answer yes to these two questions. This was the moment when 5 songwriting educators joined forces and created The Harmony Club
By the early months of 2018 the teacher candidates at Queen's University were worn out. I wouldn't say we were consumed by gruelling schoolwork that required complex thinking. We were consumed by a rigorous schedule, placement commitments and deadlines to submit assignments and lesson plans. The saving grace was the upcoming Alternative Practicum, a chance for us to spend 3 weeks involved in an educational endeavour that existed outside the classroom. It was very wide open what we could do. My mentor teacher Aynne noted that a previous student got to live out her fantasy and work with Dolly Parton's charity foundation, Dollywood. We were asked to jot down a few of our dream situations. I wrote down one thing: I want to write a children's album with Fred Penner. Afterwards Aynne took me aside:
Aynne: "I have someone better. He's local. He's a friend. His name is Gary Rasberry."
Me: "Is that his real name, or is that a stage name for the kids?"
Aynne: "That's his real name. Here's his e-mail. Get in touch with him"
I met up with Gary at The Small Batch Cafe (RIP) in downtown Kingston and we got to talking. We hit it off immediately. After a few minutes it felt like I was talking to an old friend. Gary had built a career focused on outdoor education, arts education and producing original children's music. A highlight for Gary came in 2014 when he garnered a Juno nomination for his album What's The Big Idea? Gary had previously worked with teacher candidates on their alternative practicum projects and was curious what I had planned. I showed him a scrap piece of paper that contained 8 words: 'How To Be An Awesome 21st Century Human'. The idea was to make an album designed to empower kids that featured themes that they might not learn at school; things like showing confidence and appreciating nature and displaying gratitude. I can't recall exactly what was said, but I'm sure Gary said something like: "Great. Find some like-minded friends in the program and let's do this. Oh, and that title is too long, how about 'How To Be Awesome'. It's more succinct". It reminded me of the scene in 'The Social Network' when Justin Timberlake's character said to Mark Zuckerberg: "Drop the The. Just Facebook."
At that point I had became close friends with Alex Rochon-Terry. Alex and I met in the backseat of our carpool heading to Harrowsmith Public School for our first placement of the year. We often talk about how that pairing was incredibly serendipitous. Alex and I connected right away, spiritually and musically. I could go on about our connection (some might call a bromance) but that's another story.
Jillian Kerr and I met early on at an icebreaker game during orientation. Upon learning we were both songwriters from Ottawa and part of the A.C.E. program (Artist in Community Education), I could tell that this was someone I would be spending a lot of time with in the upcoming year. Some days later when we were killing time in the school foyer, a student in the program sat down on the couch and proceeded to tell us his life story, with all the ups and downs (but especially the downs). This went on for maybe 30 minutes. Jillian and I sat awkwardly, looking at each other with that look of Is this actually happening? Luckily we had a valid excuse to meet up with other members of our program and left the building. We laughed about that for the entire walk over. Our friendship was solidified.
I had seen Evan Gammage around the building a lot but hadn't befriended him until some time in. Along with Alex, Evan was in the outdoor education program. I spent a large chunk of time with the outdoor ed crew throughout the program. I have never been to so many potlucks. I can't remember exactly how I met Evan but I'm fairly certain it took place at a table on the first floor of Duncan McArthur and we likely talked about the following: guitars, his former funk band in Peterborough, Toronto living & tasty food we had found in downtown Kingston.
What do these individuals have in common? Monster talents. All of them. When Gary asked me to assemble a crew, I knew exactly who needed to be part of this experience. I reached out to the potential teammates and they all agreed to work on the project. We met up at Gary's place, a house adorned with books and poetry and records and instruments galore. We drank wine, chatted and jammed the night away. Good vibrations filled the room, literally and figuratively.
After spending many months learning pedagogy and theories and devising lesson plans and activities, we were ready to art out and create some music. We were hungry for it. Working with Mentor Gary in a space used exclusively for artistic purposes was the perfect setting for our needs. Student art coated the walls, a stand up piano sat in the corner, some chairs accompanied a long rectangular table. The minimalist setup was just right. We came together with an idea but no set plan. Our only objective was to create songs under the banner of 'How To Be Awesome'. Were we going to write a full album? Were we going to write the songs together? Were we going to record the album? Was the conclusion of the project going to be a live performance for students? We didn't know. We went with the flow and let things grow organically and just stuck with our main objective. In the first couple days Gary inspired us by sharing some selective works of music and poetry and leading us in writing exercises. Prior to the meetup I had been working on a song called "Smile". Evan had been working on a song with a riff inspired by gypsy jazz. Again, I am not sure how it happened but we decided that all 5 of us would write a song and bring it to the team who would then add harmonies and provide feedback. This felt like the right approach. It ended up working beautifully. We would go somewhere in the building to work on a song, come back to the space and share what we had come with while the other members would contribute with a harmonic line or a suggestion for the song's structure. The ending of 'Smile' had me singing "It happens every time you smile". Evan suggested I repeat that line 3 times to wrap up the song. We kept that. In Alex's song "If Our Feelings Were Alive" he listed some animals including a monkey. I added some monkey sounds. We kept that. By the end of the first week we had completed the 5 songs, so we thought, why not write another song each? By the end of the second week we had 10 songs. We had an album! One of our classmates' husband ran a studio so we booked some studio time to record the newly written songs.
Before the project began we knew we had to raise money to pay for Gary's time and for studio time if we ended up going down that route. We decided to run a Kickstarter campaign. We shot the promo video at Joe's Mill instrument-lending library. We established a goal of raising $2,000 and were blown away by the generosity of our family and friends. We ended up raising a lot more money than we could have ever anticipated and were able to pay Gary, Matt at Longshot Records and take care of a number of expenses (mastering the tracks, posters, download cards). Recording went as smoothly as possible. Matt was particularly happy with our efficiency. It helped that we had been working diligently on the songs prior to our sessions and we had coalesced so well as a group. We spent 3 weeks together and there was never a single argument. We had a strong mutual respect and admiration for one another. We communicated effectively. Any feedback was constructive and helpful. Positivity and fun were rampant. Inside jokes were formed. We didn't want to return to class! Following 3 sessions, we recorded our 10 songs; we returned to school as Matt prepared to mix the tracks. It was depressing to get out of our artistic hole and return to the normalcy of school life. But the silver lining was that in due time we had an album to share with the world.
From the time we finished recording up to the release date, we had some opportunities to share the songs. Since we were about to release an album and do some live performances, we had to come up with a name. Rather than digging deep in the name vault and spending days coming up with the right name, I think it was me who suggested The Harmony Club. It embodied the essence of our group and it was something simple. We weren't a pretentious band seeking the coolest name. Everyone agreed to The Harmony Club and that was that. We did some open mic nights at Elm Cafe and Balzac's Coffee, ran a workshop for the students at H'Art Centre, played an outdoor show for participants at WIntergreen Studio's BioBlitz and did some impromptu performances for our classmates at Queen's. One of the perks for donating a large sum to our Kickstarter campaign was getting your very own Harmony Club show. So we performed at Alex's family cottage north of Peterborough and for Jillian's cousin and his company's employees in a big backyard outside of Ottawa. Jillian and I, serving as the Ottawa representatives of the group, did a couple spots for Carlton University's campus radio station. All of us participated in the Faculty of Education's podcast Popular Podagogy where we talked about our journey and the meaning behind the songs; we shared funny stories about our teaching experiences. A few of us played some songs at CFRC for my Sunday night radio show. 'Aught2Rock' was dedicated to indie rock from the 2000s, but that night we changed gears and performed uplifting children's music. My audience was really disappointed that night and I received a few cranky e-mails.
(As undertones aren't as detectable, please note that was sarcasm and my 'audience' consisted mostly of my mom and dad and maybe a couple friends who happened to be up late. I wish I had received some e-mails)
The tracks were ready. The only thing remaining was an album cover. I had asked our dear friend (and superfan) Lucia to make a design. She knocked it out of the park. For the finishing touches our visually gifted friend Jill G created the colour scheme. On June 15th, 2018 The Harmony Club released 'How To Be Awesome'. In the old days we would have put all our eggs in the CD basket. But we chose to be realistic and put all our eggs in the digital basket. We released the album on Bandcamp and CDBaby and on the streaming services and ordered a number of download cards. For the release party we had considered renting out a bar/lounge to host a release party but the obvious venue was right in front of our eyes. Jillian and others lived in a big old house in the heart of downtown Kingston that had a majestic backyard. What made the setting more majestic was the work of Housemaster Vytas who decorated the space with lights and cushions and carpets. That was not his title but it may as well have been. On that warm summer night, a group of friends and family filled the backyard where we performed our songs and shared some stories. As the sun set we continued the night with extended jams surrounded by great company and of course, drinks and snacks. It was perfect.
It felt like one of those really good dreams that you never want to wake up from. It started off as an idea, manifested into a meaningful project and ended up a blissful experience. Though we were unhappy to return to the tediousness of school life, the experience reinvigorated our passions. It served as a healthy reminder that we have the ability and responsibility to incorporate the arts in our teaching endeavours wherever life may take us. Currently, life has taken me and my partner Sarah to South Korea to work at an international school. Feeling inspired by our creation, Sarah has given a new life to "How To Be Awesome" by writing a play based on the songs. We plan on putting on a production of the play in the near future. Now how awesome is that?