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The Long Road to ithaca

PART ONE: With Souls of Birds.....

Preface: You will have to excuse my use of first names in this piece but I find I cannot write it from any journalistic distance. Tom Mank and Sera Jane Smolen are more than just people to me. I knew them before we ever communicated. I knew their music, which is why I contacted them in the first place. I had just reviewed their album Where the Sun Meets the Blue for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange (FAME) and, quite taken with Tom's approach to life through his music, asked for an interview. He graciously agreed and paved the way for an interview with Sera as well. While we talked, they worked on a newer and even stronger album (to my ears, anyway), Paper Kisses, and before the release of that album we tied up some loose ends, shall we say.

Those loose ends made me realize that I didn't want to write just a review of their musical lives, which was my original intent. It became evident that there was something just short of an obvious reason they were together and making music and I began to wonder about their paths. I mean, how do completely separate entities from completely different points in space and time find each other? And what if one had, say, attended a different school or taken a certain job? Would either be where they are now?

Mostly, though, I wonder about the music. I put every bit as much stock in Tom Mank and Sera Smolen as others do in Green Day and Bruce Springsteen and the plethora of so-called superstars who supply background music for their lives. Paper Kisses and Where the Sun Meets the Blue have supplied background for mine since their release and I chuckle at the obvious disbelief in people's faces when I mention them in the same breath as Revolver or Days of Future Passed. It is a statement of fact, not a comparison, yet it never ceases to raise eyebrows or instigate rolling of the eyes.

So put aside prejudices when you read this. It is hardly objective and it is no “I saw the future when I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan” story. It is a story of two people who happen to be musicians and the people who influenced and influence them. It is a story of lives lived and lives being lived. But mostly it is a story of what music can mean to people who really embrace it and allow it to enrich their lives. And it happened not on the yellow brick road, but on the long road to Ithaca...

PART ONE: An Improvisation Throughout Time.....

I grew up in Baltimore,” Tom said during our first interview. “My mom, Sophie, played guitar and sang country music, mostly just for herself. When she was growing up, her brother John taught her to play guitar and she and Aunt Helen, her sister, sang harmonies together all the time. Not many women were playing guitar back then.

I wouldn't call my family musical by any means. The only musical person was Mom. We would have house parties and there would be all these relatives and Mom would bring out the guitar and sing for everybody. For Christmas every year, she would give us kids little musical instruments hoping that one of us would take it up but none of us did--- until I was eighteen anyway, which was when I decided to start playing guitar..

She had this reel-to-reel tape deck which had dubbing capabilities and she would record herself, then sing harmonies on another track. This was in the mid-sixties, remember. It was pretty unique for the time--- and funny at times too. Once, she recorded a Johnny Cash song and then recorded herself harmonizing with him.

My early listening experiences came from my sister and brother. I shared a room with my brother, who is seven years older than me. He was always playing music, everything from The Brothers Four to Barbra Streisand to classical music--- everything you could imagine. I couldn't do homework without hearing it. He played music constantly and had a big record collection.

My brother was very diverse when it came to music. He would find an artist and buy everything he could find by that artist, then find another and buy all of that person's stuff. When he discovered headphones, he would sing along with headphones on and you know how terrible you can sound when you can't hear yourself. (laughs)

Speaking of The Beatles (Ed. Note: We weren't.), I was hearing The Brothers Four and bluegrass and Streisand and all of a sudden, he was playing Sgt. Pepper. Put it on out of nowhere. I remember thinking, what the hell is that?”

Though Tom didn't realize it, seeds had been sown.

I was a late bloomer onto the music thing,” he admits. “It was almost like I came out of a cave. I was drawn to guitar at age eighteen. It almost became an obsession, something I really wanted to do. There was this rumor that Eric Clapton had sat in a closet for a year and learned how to play guitar and when he came out, he was great (laughs), so I decided to start playing guitar. I thought that maybe in a year or so I could be good. Once I started, I carried the guitar with me everywhere and practiced all the time. It was like music had become a revelation to me. The acoustic guitar is what I wanted. I would read about Clapton's influences and suddenly I'm listening to Robert Johnson and Skip James and all the blues legends. Then I'm listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and more and more I find myself drawn to the acoustic songs. From there, it was a small jump to bluegrass and folk and the singer/songwriters. Of course, this happened over a period of time.

When I got my first job, I bought one of those Hitachi cassette players with speakers you could remove to separate the sound. I would go down to the basement bathroom, lay my head between the two speakers, put my feet up on the toilet and listen to music. I tried The Beatles first. I bought Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper and Hey Jude and listened hard. I was fascinated. There were so many intricate things going on. So I bought a few more, and then a few more.”

Of course, that was not everything Tom did. He went to school and studied.

I had attended an engineering high school,” he said, “and thought I would continue that, so I worked for a year after graduation and made enough money to attend a community college to study Civil Engineering. After a couple of years, I felt like I wanted to write, so I switched my major to English Composition and got a degree in Writing. I was getting A's in all of my English and Writing classes and B's and C's in my engineering classes, so it looked like a good move at the time. I thought I was going to write novels, I guess, or work for a newspaper or something.

“While I was there, I met this guy Denny. He was a little older than me and had a reel-to-reel setup. We would drink beer and listen to all The Doors and then all the Jimi Hendrix and others. He had them all, in the order that the albums were released. So we listened. To all of Janis Joplin and all of the Jefferson Airplane and all of The Rolling Stones and all of Eric Clapton. It was phenomenal to night after night be listening to this music. It came at me all at once. And after a lot of the bands had split up. (laughs)

It wasn't really camaraderie. Denny just loved music so much and I got into it so much that that was what we would do. Night after night after night. His wife Gina was there and she thought we were a little crazy, listening to music over and over again. It was an education for me. Listening to somebody's total work and then listening to someone else's total works.”

Meanwhile, just outside of Rome (New York, not Italy)...

Unlike Tom, Sera Jane Smolen knew exactly what she wanted from life from the very start--- music. The opportunities to listen were there, though the opportunities to learn were limited.

We lived in a little town up north,” she said, “and there weren't very many opportunities to see music but I remember there was a little concert series, maybe five concerts a year, and various musicians and groups would come to play.

My sister and I studied music, she for just a short time. It was only through the public school, of course. It wasn't like our parents were keen to take us to private lessons or have us be good or anything, but it was charming to have girls who studied music in the family. After all, we were just going to get married anyway, so...

Up there in the country, they only had a full-size cello and it was way too big for me, but I didn't know the difference. As a result, I later had to unlearn different things that I had learned how to do. I had to relearn them the correct way.”

Relearn? What does that mean?

That I later had to unlearn different things,” she explained, “that I had already learned how to do. I had to learn to do them the correct way. I had to take something I was doing and understand, really understand how it is done--- with the muscles, with all of the principles of motion, the use of weight and imagery. And I would say today that all of that relearning has really affected me as a teacher. Now, no matter what comes up in my studio, nothing scares me. I have already had to figure those things out.”

That was not the only obstacle she would have to overcome.

Many cellists are classically trained. In a sense, you almost have to be. Maybe you don't have to be, but in order to do whatever you want to do, you need that kind of information and experience.

If you want to be able to do anything you want to with a bow, you have to know how to use a bow. Which means you have to know how to use all the parts of a bow, all of the different ways to articulate and to color notes. You have to know how to make strong as well as transparent sounds with the bow. And there is the left hand, which fingers the notes. You can't put a capo on the cello. You have to know how to play in all of the different keys or else you're a cellist who can play in only three keys, thank you.

Understand, all of the world class string players--- the Midori's and the Joshua Bell's and the Yo-Yo Ma's--- started before they were five. All of them. I lived on a dead-end road in the country and did not start until I was in the fifth grade.

I began listening to all kinds of music and at the same time studied classical. By the time I reached high school, I began to feel like music was the only language that could tell the truth. I started playing cello during my study halls and would play after everybody in my family went to sleep.”

Most of her free time was spent studying and playing and listening. Without realizing it, music was becoming her life. As graduation approached, Sera looked for ways to extend that life. She wasn't ready for marriage and a family and, still consumed with music, wanted to pursue the path she was on. As she later realized, despite difficulties, there is always a way.

The little steel company that my father worked at had this extraordinary program, and I hope they still have it,” she related, “where they paid four years college tuition for all of their employees' children. Not room and board, but tuition. When it came time to choose a college, I chose Ithaca College because it had a performance certificate you could obtain at the same time as your certification to teach.

The performance certificate allowed me to have more time in lessons and string quartets and orchestras and chamber music groups. It gave me a high level in-depth study of the cello, not just a perfunctory knowledge. I gave recitals and premiered pieces by composers. I was in string quartets and guitar quartets and chamber orchestras and master classes--- many, many wonderful things.

When I graduated, I took one course each semester and studied a number of education courses at Cornell University and then at Ithaca College. Usually, to get a Master's, you have to have 30 credits. Eventually, between those universities, I had 30 credits but no Master's. I was a freelance, self-employed musician. I performed, taught, studied and gave recitals.

Then I began to work with David Darling. David Darling is the guru of improvisational cello. There are so many people who would say 'I would not be who I am now without David Darling.' I am one who says that. As a musician, he blows my mind. I think there is a little paragraph on my website about my first lesson with him.

“It was around that time that I began to develop a plan, which was to train and continue gathering experience so I could do teacher training in later life.”

The Suzuki Method

Teaching is a very personal thing to Sera, as is music. Talking with her, one gets the sense of adapting teaching to the student--- that teaching is all about the student, in fact.

I took graduate training to teach the Suzuki Method,” the emphasis on Suzuki. “Shinichi Suzuki is an extremely important musician in world history, in my opinion. What happened was he went from Japan to Germany and when he got off the train in Germany, he noticed that all of the children were running around and playing and talking German. At that moment, he realized that all Japanese children speak Japanese and all German children speak German. That was his eureka moment where he saw what real musical talent actually is. They're all geniuses. All children are gifted to learn their mother tongue perfectly. So he found a way to teach music the same way. Through his techniques and teaching, thousands of young children the world over have become great musicians.”

Sera's voice changed in timbre and intensity as she continued.

Suzuki would say that every child is born talented and is nurtured in the environment. The Suzuki methodology as it was originally done in Japan has to be a little different than in America because, culturally, we're different. The philosophy works. Every family and, of course, every child is unique. When parents bring their children to take lessons with me, I teach them and their children. I try to teach the environment of their household in order to nurture the innate musicianship of each child.”

Voodoo education? Hardly. It is a key element to many alternative schools. Separating a student from his or her environment gets in the way of learning. Think about it. That's all Dr. Sera Jane Smolen is saying. The Dr.? She has a doctorate, yes, which she received in an out of the ordinary way. Sera didn't have the requirements to enter a doctor's program through most universities, but then...

A few people said to me, 'You should go to the Union Institute,' so I looked into it. It is a 'university without walls' and they only deal in Ph.D's.

On the application, they encouraged me to give them a description of the learning I had done in my life, whether it was within or outside of school. So I listed my studies with David Darling and the recitals and the premiering of new compositions and attending Suzuki seminars and then outlined my studies at Cornell and Ithaca College. They looked at it and said I had the equivalent of a Masters, that I qualified. And I received my doctorate.

In fact, I am continuing to work on the research I did for that degree. It is affecting the way I am going about the whole rest of my life. While I studied there, I delved very deep into very interesting and very important topics. It completely changed my understanding of the relationship between music and the human being.”

TOM MANK: Conversations In Waves.....

Tom had been carting the guitar around with him for a number of years before really going public. Sure, he played a lot by himself and with the occasional friend and acquaintance, but it was a struggle.

When it comes to public speaking, I'm totally nervous,” Tom explained. “Singing, the more people, the better I perform. For me, public speaking is being extroverted in front of people. Performing is being introverted in front of people. At least, that's the way I describe it.

The turning point for me was when I realized that I didn't have to be a performer. I didn't have to tell stories and make people laugh. Some people like to go hear an artist because they are extroverted and funny and what they do is interesting, but sometimes they like to hear an artist who introverts himself. When I realized there was a difference, I realized I could do it. Now when I perform, I close my eyes and sing and play.

At first, I was terrified,” he admitted. “I used to take my guitar down to Ocean City in Maryland and jam with these guitarists. One day, this guy said, hey, sing with me at this gig, so I did. I remember sitting up there, frozen, and I think I even turned my back to the audience. It was truly terrifying that first time. But I got used to it.”

Still, it wasn't until Tom moved to Ithaca that he began to thrive.

I moved to Ithaca in 1977,” he said, “and shortly thereafter became interested in bluegrass. I did a lot of picking. I was in a band called Blue Country, which gained a certain amount of notoriety around there. We had a basic lineup--- guitar, banjo, bass, mandolin, fiddle and vocals. Blue Country lasted from '84 until '90, and at the end I was just beginning to really write songs.

I think I first started writing songs when I was learning to play guitar--- in the early '70's--- but I think the first song that was a 'keeper' I wrote in '81, and the next one was 1985. When I talk about 'keepers,' there just are not that many.

Some of the songs I would perform with Blue Country and they would work out, but even some of those didn't end up being 'keepers.' I was well into the '90s before my songwriting skills began to develop.

You see, for the longest time, the ideas were there but I couldn't express them until I could play the guitar well enough. The words were interesting, but the music was not. My advice to songwriters, especially those just beginning, is if a song doesn't work out, keep the lyrics. I have stacks and stacks of old lyrics and every once in awhile, when I'm looking for something, I will go fishing amongst those stacks and find a phrase I need. I've kept all of the old handwritten lyrics from the '80's and '90's.”

Love's In Motion.....

Only people who don't appreciate the intricacies of music--- and life, really--- could miss the inevitable connection between people like Tom and Sera. There is an obvious deep-seated connection between them, an understanding which overrides all. Still, they could have missed one another. They could have been two ships passing in the night and, in fact, almost were.

I was in the studio recording my second cassette,” remembers Tom, “and I said to the recording engineer, a cello would sound nice here, and he said, you should call Sera. I said, Sera who? He gave me her number and I called and said I have three songs and I'd like to see if you would play cello on them and she said, it'll be a hundred dollars. (He and I both laughed) We got together and she improvised some cello parts. Best hundred dollars I ever spent. (More laughter) That was in '92.

She was in another relationship and so was I. We recorded and it sounded pretty good. We got together again in 1999, when we weren't in relationships anymore.”

Of course, there was more to it than that. Life was not always the smooth sailing ship Tom at first presented.

In '90, the shit hit the fan,” he said. “My marriage fell apart, I lost my job and found out that I had a heart valve that was leaking and in need of repair. It was a wakeup call. I landed in the hospital and had all these songs in my head and vowed that when I got out of there, I was going to play more music. I had to record those songs. I mean, I could have died and had none of those songs recorded.

When I did get out, I started meeting with musicians, singularly or in groups. I started playing with everybody. Music became my number one priority. I listened more, I wrote more, I played more and I recorded more. You learn from everybody, you know? You are influenced if even from just hearing someone play. You know how bands are. You start a band and play a few gigs and it doesn't work out, but you still learn from all those people. And it becomes part of your music.

“Looking back, the '90's were pretty good to me. Because I had lost my job, I went back to school and got a Master's Degree, so I had a new career in Computer Mapping and Environmental Planning. And you know how it is when you start a new career. I was 40 years old and took a job in Corning for a couple of years and when that contract ran out, went to Washington D.C. to work for a year. Then I went to Boston for six months and then was in New Hampshire for a year and by then there were job openings in Ithaca again.

Musically, I was gaining experience. I played open mikes all the time, wherever I was, and was meeting new musicians and songwriters. I was keeping the music fresh and was in and out of bands with the people in Ithaca. They'd set up gigs there and I would travel to play.”

Now, let's see... where were we again? Ah, yes. Sera.

The eighties and nineties were a blur to Sera, at least in terms of activity. Her life was a constant maelstrom of study and practice and music and new techniques and... and... One thing you can't say about Sera is that she ever had time to relax. For some people, music is indeed a full-time job.

“I was taking lessons--- endless lessons,” she said. “Endless Master classes and going to talks and talking with colleagues and being in groups. You learn from conductors and other musicians and the music itself and you have to practice. You have to learn it. It isn't passive, where it soaks in like a sponge. You have to decide that you are going to do that and do it. Luckily, I love to practice.

“Also, I studied philosophy--- specifically Kashmir Shaivism. I studied with Gurumayi Chidvilasananda and spent a lot of time playing in chants. I was using ragas and playing with a variety of Indian musicians. At the time, she had decided that an efficient way to teach was to set up a satellite dish and broadcast to other countries. At the time, she was broadcasting to 72. So I played on these broadcasts over and over and over. Sometimes all of us would have these extraordinary inner experiences because of her presence in the whole thing. I was very, very committed to that.

“So there I was, playing in the chamber orchestra, playing in the Syracuse Symphony. I was giving recitals a lot--- solo recitals. I was premiering pieces by composers. And I was teaching.

“Because improvisation was opening up so many important things for me and because I learned that for the last 6,000 years everyone improvised (and in classical music in the western world since the 1900's, they didn't), I learned that to not improvise is unnatural. So about the mid-eighties, I started teaching improvisation. At that point, all of my students improvised and composed and played classical music. They could read music and write music and they could play the blues. That seemed to me like a good way to teach.”

She also studied with Alice Kanack. Kanack, it seems, was very influential in the teaching of The Suzuki Method and developed a school specifically for that purpose. Sera's relationship with Kanack has spanned years and they recently collaborated on a book on improvisation for string quartet.

It was Sera's doctoral thesis that provided the push that Sera and Tom needed to find one another again.

“We were in touch on postcards,” Sera said. “If he moved or something, he would use it as an excuse to invite me to jam with him. He happened to be in Keene, New Hampshire when I needed to do some research on teaching in the Waldorf School there, so we reconnected. I remember saying to Tom, I have to do this doctoral research. Could I sleep on your couch? And he said, you can if you jam with me. Every night, when you're done and you come back, if you jam with me, you can sleep on my couch.

“He was both joking and serious, but I did it. I jammed with him every night, and we even wrote this beautiful song together--- New Mown Hay. I was playing this bass line/guitar chord thing on the cello one night and Tom said, hey, that's cool. The next day, he came back from work with lyrics to go with that bass line. During this baseball game that week, someone had reflected on death while on the diamond and Tom was thinking about that a lot. That was a big part of how he started that song.

Later that evening, he played Almost Time for me and I was blown away. And I still feel that way about that song. Sometimes, I feel like a bull in a china shop when it comes to music. The delicacy of Almost Time literally took my breath away. I wanted to enter that song poetically and respectfully and elegantly without disturbing anything. I still get the feeling that if a song is so beautiful, intense, profound and inward, that I don't want to barge right into it. I want to go toward that music very carefully.

So our relationship was musical at first, but the personal connection started coming along with that. Eventually, it was as if a veil was lifted. It was one of those mysterious things where neither one of us would have ever guessed that we would be lovers, much less spouses. Who knew how destiny would work in that way? It was just lovely. I'm not sure how long he would say it was. Maybe it was less than a year, but it was just lovely.”

The significance of the relationship was not lost on Tom, either.

At that time,” said Tom, “I started becoming more comfortable with my songwriting. I began to try to say as much as I could with as few words as possible. Since then, I have become known for cutting a lot of adjectives and verbs from songs. In fact, in a way it has become my trademark.

It hasn't been until recently that I've felt like this is really it, that this is my style and the songs are real. As I say to Sera when I'm writing a song, I don't know if this will be a 'real' song. But lately, there has been a much higher percentage of those which turn out really well. I think a lot of that has to do with being a better guitar player, that and the fact that in the past four years or so, I started using a whole lot of open tunings. I felt like I'd hit a level of competence with standard tuning. I mean, I saw other people using open tuning and sometimes on CD's it will tell you what tunings they use and I started saying, hey, I'll try that. Many times, I will figure out chords and not know what they're called. I don't know anything about reading music, but when you get into open tuning, you're in a whole new frontier. It's a thing with us guitar players. I meet singwriters from all over and we frequently trade guitar tunings.

Now, Sera's path is very interesting. Performing with me is like a dream come true for her, in some ways. As a cellist, if anyone wants to perform with you, they usually hand you sheet music. But I rarely have even suggestions. I write a song and I leave a spot for her to improvise, so she has this blank slate every time. She'll sit there and say what if I try this and what if I try that and sometimes loses track of time. She'll spend a couple of hours trying to come up with a small part. It is amazing sometimes the stuff she comes up with.”

By the time I'm involved,” Sera explained further, “Tom has the song worked out to a large degree. It is not like I have no effect on the music because I do make suggestions and I do share observations and he does sometimes make changes based on those suggestions.”

As regards her own compositions, she likens them to “poems which come mysteriously when and how they have to come. I love to improvise and I consider my pieces as improvisations that get saved. I have various fragments of music which get incorporated into my improvisations. When I sit down and dive in, I just find what I must find, musically.”

Tom, on the other hand, seldom improvises. One might think that compositions like those he writes would need a more structured base. The process is loose, true, but it works.

When Sera's not home,” Tom went on, “I like to think of it as down time. I pick up the guitar a lot just to see what happens and sometimes, especially when I work on new tunings, a song will start to develop.

Since I use so many open tunings, I have to write down the tablatures or I will forget them. I have a book in which I can write down where my fingers are on a specific chord. And I need it. I forget them. I don't know the names of the chords and once I change it to an open tuning, I am clueless. If I need to know which chord I'm playing, I will ask Sera and she figures it out on the piano. It is a mystery to me.”

PART TWO: Where The Sun Meets the Blue

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