Four musicians share stories about how they came to make music their life’s work.
Nancy Jephcote, Vineyard Haven
Strings teacher, singer, songwriter; guitar and fiddle
The Flying Elbows
I was lucky — I came from a musical family. Both my parents and all three of my sisters — everybody played music. My father was a composer, and taught composition and double bass at the University of Iowa. My mother was a lyric soprano. She taught voice. With Suzuki sisters — four girls — I was No. 3 in the lineup. What we call the lost child, trying to be unique in every way.
Composing and teaching
So I started composing music when I was really little. I was out to try to keep up with Mozart, which didn’t work out well, Mozart being a heck of an example to keep up with.
I thought that when I grew up, I might want to write operas, ’cause I also always loved words.
My songwriting is nearest and dearest to my heart. I’m curious about how people work and how they think. So I’m a word person and a people person. When you put words to music, it elevates it to a stronger emotional level, and it requires you to refine what you have to say and to marry the two. I don’t know what the equivalent would be for any other art form except maybe film, where you are marrying visual imagery and a script. For me, it’s the intersection of those things that really gets interesting.
I teach music, but for me it is also all about writing music. My creativity gets sparked by customizing, and making things that will really work for my students.
I’m a full-time teacher, but it’s more than a full-time job. Now we have 160 kids continuing with strings. And we have these big, long waiting lists for kids to start.
I don’t have children, I’m not married. I have a lot of time to put into it … it is a monster job. “She has the craziest job,” that was what my father remembered about me — in his late 80s with Alzheimer’s. I look at it as service. I’m fortunate that something that gives me a good living is also of use to the people of the community here. I like that combination as well.
Working with children is a little like surfing for me. They have this boundless energy. If you can observe them enough to understand where they are going, and ride that energy,
you can really have a wonderful ride. It’s a challenge ’cause each one has his or her own waveforms. Children are amazing energy; they keep me young working with them. You have to be able to remember your younger mind in order to appeal to theirs. You have to also be the grownup.They need you to “get them.”
Way more kids have an affinity for music than have the right environment to manifest it. As a Suzuki teacher, we are taught that talent isn’t really the point — that this capacity for excellence is really in every person. Anyone who can speak well can play well. Most of the children I see are capable of astounding musical performance, but no one else thinks so. More is possible.
It takes a long time to know if you love [music]. I was taught by my teacher that it takes an average of seven years to determine if you are a musician. A musician is someone who has to do it in order to be happy. It took me an awful long time to know that.
I’m a performing artist, one of the many who miss the days of the Wintertide
Coffee House when we had a venue. The world is changing; nowadays people don’t go out as much for music.
We’re a very visual society. People want to watch videos. Most of the musicians I know wish we had more places to play.
Here on Martha’s Vineyard we have this creative community, and most of us are doing several things to be as close as we can to being who we want to be in life. The musician’s job consumes huge amounts of time and space. I have no illusions that I’ll ever have a high-powered career singing and writing music. I do it because I love it. I hope to do a couple of gigs a year that people will come out and hear and enjoy.
I’m making a new CD of my songs, with Paul Thurlow engineering it for me.
Musicians on the Vineyard: Is it a good place to live and work?
It’s a little like haiku.If you are a person who thrives under limitations, it’s a good place to be a musician. I think most of the musicians on the Island would admit that there are some really galling limitations. On the other hand, because there are so few of us, everyone knows everyone; we understand each other. But I do think of the difficulty coming and going — you have to tour, go to other places [as a musician]. There are times when you’d like to get farther afield, and get a chance to have more of a cultural connection to the larger world. But you don’t want that so much that you’d have to give up this beautiful, insular, special community, where we matter to each other in a way that the rest of the world may not get the benefit of. So it’s a tradeoff.
Isaac Taylor, Aquinnah,
Singer and songwriter; guitar
I’m working on my first record: I feel like it’s got a little bit more mixing and
editing to do, but for the most part, all the tracks are laid down. It’s not finalized, but it’s close. A couple more months and we will have it done. I’ve been waiting for my friends — two brothers, Andrew and Brad Barr — to have time for this endeavor. Their band is called the Barr Brothers, and they now live in Montreal. I went to high school with them 20 years ago. They’ve been a musical inspiration to me, not only their own musicality but also just their understanding of nature and life. We’ve been on an adventure together.
I’m from a musical family, but not one that got together around the piano at every holiday to sing songs out of the family songbook. I grew up across the road from here at the Outermost Inn [Aquinnah]. My dad [Hugh Taylor] came in the ’50s with his mom and dad as summer residents.
My mother’s side of the family are Chilmarkers for 15 or 16 generations. They do have a family songbook, and that has been a joyful part of my musical history. My mom, Jeanne Smith, grew up in Chilmark in the early Gladys/Robert Mayhew/Flanders family; Gladys was born in that big house where Humphreys Bakery used to be in West Tisbury.
I’m a smorgasbord Vineyarder.
My wife Noli comes from a politically active family, and they also have a beautiful family songbook and get together and sing every year. So my house is full of music with the kids — unlike mine was, in a sense, as a child.
Music as life choice
I was in high school and knew that the easiest relationship I was having was my relationship with music. It was there for me when I called for it — that sort of connection. Music was always right there: singing. The nature of harmony and someone’s place in harmony is an unfolding experience for me. I’m still learning how to sit in harmony. That means being able to hear and produce harmonious tones, which I think also has to do with your life. We try to live in harmony, and harmonious music is the same thing. So looking for that and being attached to that relationship is something I probably started when I was 12 or 13, and as time goes on, it becomes a deeper, richer relationship and never seems to stop becoming more intricate.
Harmony: What more could I ask for? Harmonious relationships with your family, your kids, your friends, your parents, the earth. That has a lot to do with my relationship to music, living a harmonious life.
My intention for my album is to have something to give to people. Something that will be of good use, and be harmonious. That’s really what I’m hoping for. If a few people can enjoy it, I can’t ask for more.
I sang in choirs in high school, and went to Berklee College of Music in Boston after a few semesters at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where I sang in a gospel choir. I studied
Indian classical vocal music, and ended up taking lessons from my main mentor, Warren Senders, for three years. The northern Indian classical music is a great doorway into the tapestry of harmony I was talking about. That history I carry with me in my journey.
In another life, I would like to help people find their musical voices. I had a couple of teachers who opened that doorway to harmony for me through singing.
I would like to be able to share that with other people. Right now, I don’t really know how I would go about that…. It’s down the line.
One great musical drone instrument that I have is called the shruti box. It’s an Indian instrument, lovely. It’s something that if people are interested in finding their voice, a shruti box is a great way to get into the river of harmony. I use that a lot with my kids.
My dad has the most beautiful voice I can imagine — it’s amazing. His whistling is like the most beautiful bird. For my children, I would like to say, yes, they are musical — Tillie sings a lot, making up songs … [Tillie is 4, Emmett is 7]. We all take piano lessons once a week. We take a family lesson. They are showing more interest than I showed at my age. I just don’t know how that works: if the need arises. It really is a need, a want, a yearning.
Rick Bausman, West Tisbury
Founder of Rhythm of Life; master drummer
We just changed our name this year to Rhythm of Life. It used to be the Drum
Workshop, which I founded in 1986 and officially incorporated in 1995 as a nonprofit. I’ve been doing drumming workshops since 1986, both here and for groups of every age and ability in different parts of the U.S. and the world. I primarily work with children in all age groups, in most of the schools on the Island. I have a special focus on children [on] the autism spectrum, and work with the Bridge Program here on Martha’s Vineyard.
Drumming with seniors and kids
I also do a lot of work with senior citizens, and I’ll be starting some programing this winter at the Anchors. I’ve done some work at Windemere and the West Tisbury and Tisbury Councils on Aging. Sometimes I bring kindergarten and first grade kids to the Council on Aging to play with the seniors; I try to mix it up a bit.
All kids seem to have a very positive reaction to being asked to participate in this musical experience. One of the unique things about drumming is that it’s immediately accessible as a hands-on activity. Right from the jump, they are in the band. Although we can play extremely complicated rhythms, we can start out initially in a way that is very comfortable for children, and build up to the most challenging parts over time. I’m teaching very specific, actual, traditional rhythms from West Africa, Haiti, and Brazil. The way kids are taught in those cultures is that the teacher will come up with a verbal phrase to help them remember what the drum part is. In other cultures of origin, the kids have grown up with it, so drumming is not so brand-new. For children here in the U.S., it’s a whole new experience; a lot of kids have never touched a conga drum or even heard any music like the rhythms we are trying to learn.
For preschoolers, kindergarten, and first and second grades, I bring in a different repertoire — a whole plethora of instruments. We do music that’s not so rigidly based in a strict rhythmic tradition.
It’s about learning how to feel good about what you’re doing, and how to give support and receive support.
Sharing the beat
I’ve been a drummer all my life, and played a regular drum set for a long time. After college, when I moved to the Vineyard, I bumped into some people I had met in 1986 at one of our performances at Katharine Cornell Theater. A preschool teacher asked me to come to her school and work with kids. I found that it was a lot more fun if the kids played the instruments. So I loaded up my Plymouth Horizon with as many drums as I could, and brought them to the preschool. Many other teachers heard about my drumming with schoolchildren, and called and asked if I would come and do their classes.
The Rhythm of Life has been a response to the Island community’s needs. They asked me, “Can you work with second graders? People with disabilities?” I had a lot of experience working with people with disabilities while a counselor at Camp Jabberwocky during the summers in the 1980s.
I decided that I’d like to share with other communities what we have here. I put
a package together in an effort to begin to share my programming, and went to national conferences, did some demos, and got some gigs in other states. I would teach kids and teachers how to run different programs. I wrote two different instructors’ manuals that go along with the programs, for teachers to lead their own drumming workshops with their kids. That’s worked in many places. I was also invited to go to Israel to work with Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to bring them together to form some community with the two groups. I did that with a group from Artsbridge of Swampscott. That’s their main mission, bringing Palestinians and Jewish youth together. The other program I started overseas was in Livingston, Zambia, with Marsha Winsryg’s group — African Artists’ Community Development Project. There we started a drumming program for children with disabilities, working with the drummers from the nearby Makuni village where they have a strong drumming culture and were excited to share their strengths and abilities. I learned a lot; I taught them some Haitian, West African, and Cuban rhythms.
That’s the magic of drumming: It brings people together. When I sit down with a group of kids or adults or seniors — age doesn’t matter — it’s immediately heartwarming and uplifting. Drumming is a song of the spirit. Everyone can play together, experiencing it together.
It’s kind of like an airplane taking off. The rhythm starts and everything starts to gel, and I can see in people’s eyes around the room that they are getting the same thing out of it.
The biggest problem I have across the board doing this work is funding. My sponsor for the work in Zambia was the late Marianne Goldberg. Since her death this year, I have not been able to reinstate that program, so it’s on hiatus right now. I’m confident that soon I will find funding. The same is true for Israel. To bring drums there, I have to raise funding to go back and continue.
I’m very grateful to the Island community for helping to fund what I do on the Island. I want to shout out to the people who have supported our programs. We still don’t have enough funding to do all we want to do, and are constantly running in a deficit. Ninety percent of what we do is local. I like to keep it that way. And then share what I do here in other parts of the world.
Merrily Fenner, Chilmark
Serendipity band leader
My father, Hamilton Benz, was nationally known as a boy soloist at St. John the Divine, and spent his career directing operas throughout Europe and the states. He wanted me to be an opera singer. A half hour before dinner, I’d have to sing Italian arias, but I didn’t have the operatic voice. My parents had back-to-back baby grand pianos in our home on William Street. The whole room had tiers and tiers of sheet music on the shelves. We had continuous music, and celebrities from far away would come down in the summertime. It was nothing to have Jimmy Cagney, Leonard Bernstein, Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur — as well as Islanders — wandering in and out of the house … I sang for Leonard Bernstein when I was 12. Dad said, “Now, come on, you must sing …”
Larry, my older brother, could play multiple instruments, and included me in his jazz group. He taught me ear training. He used to play big band albums for me, and jazz … and then he would say, “Who’s playing trumpet? Trombone?” I was one of the first girls to study at the Berklee School of Music, where we had only three girls and 300 guys. Ear training was what I was best at. My brother had taught me well.
My favorite genre? I love it all — I’m such a mix. Berklee is a school of jazz; I always loved rock ’n’ roll. I use to play the Beatles tunes on the jukebox and they’d scoff at me. I loved learning my jazz chords and singing jazz, but I started with folk, and it’s with me to this day.
The Moon-Cussers, the Stragglers, and doo-wop
I played stand-up bass in my brother’s jazz group at the Tivoli in ‘62. That was when I started to understand that it was music that I really wanted to get into. I was also playing folk guitar, and I sang at the Moon-Cussers coffee house on Monday nights, which was open-mike night. All the greats were coming and going on Circuit Avenue: Carly Simon, James Taylor, José Feliciano, and Tom Rush. Remember the Moon-Cussers? … The early ’60s was a great time.
My first rock group was in ’62 with Eddie Medeiros; we were Ronnie and the Juniors.
In the ’80s I was in a group called Spoof that played at the Hot Tin Roof with my father’s group, the Sinfonietta, and we called it “Bach ’n’ Roll.” That was fun.
Later in the ’80s I played in a group called The Stragglers. That was country music: Danny Whiting (we are still together), Nancy Jephcote, Danny Prowten, John Early (he had a wonderful lead to “Johnny B. Goode”), Jamie Neilsen, Mark Mazer, and Peter Huntington. I played nine years with David Crohan, Huey Taylor, and Jamie Neilsen at David’s Island House in Oak Bluffs. David and I still try to sing together once a year. Huey Taylor and I have been singing together for 35 years. He’s a dear friend, such a phenomenal voice and personality. He and I were in a band called Huey and the Beaumonts, and we sing together now, here and there, every year. He’s a wonderful sport, and jumps in with any band I’m in when I ask. We never practice; we’ve been together so long and understand each other so well vocally. He’s a dream to sing with.
When I started with the Chickie Babies, there were just three of us. We worked on doo-wop, three-part harmony, for about a year and a half. Serendipity was formed when we lost our bass player, Penny Huff. Then I took up the bass again. Now we are a doo-wop group morphed into all ages of rock ’n’ roll and Motown. I love the intricacies of the vocals and how difficult it is. Our members are Christine MacClean, Mark Mazer, Janice Syslo, and Chris Seidel. I work out the set lists, but anyone can make changes. It’s an honor, to be able to be singing at my age of 71. Practicing is a lot of work, but that’s the fun of it. That’s what I like doing, figuring out a tune. It can be very complicated. The more difficult it becomes, the more I love it.
When you are singing alone, you can sing any way you like, but when you are
singing with another person, you have to understand their nuances. I like to strive for the best we can do. I want to get that sound, ’cause when the three parts come together, there’s nothing like it! It’s just absolute heaven. We have well over 150 songs, but we practice once a week and we always are learning new songs. This particular group I’m with now is really [about] camaraderie — we really love each other. That’s what we have here, with the five of us.
I do love picking up the guitar and playing the turn-of-the-century songs at Windemere. And singing with all the residents — they help me out when I forget the lyrics. They are just thrilled to hear the old songs: “Shine On, Harvest Moon” … “When You’re Smiling”....
One year, Mark and I went over to the Royal Nursing Home in Falmouth. I was singing, “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” when one woman got up and hobbled over to us and mouthed the words. I saw the nurses stunned. They told me later that she’d been mute for 10 years. The music brought her back. I would love to know why it was that song.
What is about music that prompts emotion?
It takes us back to our earliest days in our lives to specific times that we remember. A song can immediately bring that special moment back to life. With me, I can remember so vividly where I was when I hear a song. And the dancing — I loved dancing. My father danced onstage. When I was a kid, we had the Edgartown Boys Club on Saturday nights. Sitting on the long bench, your heart would just pound. You could only hope that the guy you liked would come over to you to dance … “The Last Song of the Night,” “Good Night, My Love,” “Good Night, Sweetheart.”
There’s always another song. You just can’t get enough. I just figure, if Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson can keep going, that’s what I’m striving for. I love music so. Music makes us all feel young. I’m so eternally grateful to each and every person I’ve played and sung with. Every one has taught me something special.