Tracy Bonham, it seems, always manages to stay ahead of the curve.
The two-time Grammy nominee known far and wide for the 1990s hit “Mother Mother,” Bonham in the years since has not so much reinvented herself as redefined herself by building, expanding and adding depth to her past and present self. The end result is a musician who continues to generate music with compelling tone, texture and dimension. She also keeps more than a few tricks up her sleeve.
In 2006, Tracy toured the world as the featured vocalist and violinist with Blue Man Group, for their second arena tour. And give Tracy’s 2010 album “Masts of Manhatta” a listen to see how she endures as an artist. Looking ahead, you can go see her perform July 23 at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, New York, with The Sweet Clementines, to watch her push the envelope yet again.
And regardless of your age or whether you have children, take a deep dive on one of Tracy’s latest visionary musical endeavors, an album called “Young Maestros Vol. 1” by Tracy Bonham & Melodeon Music House.
Here’s the back story.
After her Blue Man Group gig, Tracy took a break from the road to start a family. At home, she re- connected with her classical music education and began teaching private piano, violin and voice lessons.
“Her special ability to connect with and inspire children was immediately obvious, and the ideas of Melodeon Music House started to take hold,” reads a press release.
But she found the learning materials for beginners and intermediate students lacked, according to the press release, “what she considered to be the building block of a life of musical exploration and inspiration: joy.”
So Tracy developed her own music education program for children, with original songs, games, music theory, ear training, storybook characters—and streaming classes. The whole process was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down live music venues worldwide. Tracy had been gearing up to record her next rock album, but pivoted because of the health crisis and ended up live streaming hundreds of classes for children over the spring and summer of 2020.
“‘Young Maestros Vol. 1’ is just the beginning of the larger Melodeon Music House educational program that is infused with Bonham’s passion for theory, harmony and the emotional well-being of children,” reads the press release. “…The styles and messages of the songs harken back to the influences of such 1970s children’s media as ‘Free To Be You And Me’ and ‘Sesame Street.’
So without further adieu, ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, I give you Tracy Bonham, who has my gratitude for taking the time to answer these questions.
– What inspired you to make this record and launch the music education program? This was all in the works prior to the pandemic?
Absolutely; this has been in the works for some time. I started writing music theory songs in 2009 when I began teaching private music lessons for violin, piano and voice. I felt there was a serious lack of material out there to teach kids how to learn music theory with enthusiasm and joy.
There’s plenty of material to teach scales, chords, piano technique, violin technique, modes, etc. But I was longing for a lesson plan that included joy. I was longing for a lesson plan that included the value of performing in the present moment—combining mindfulness and magic. Young people either have “American Idol” kind of ideals, where everything is touched up, or you have the strict classical approach where everything is very serious. Where is the joy? Where is their own true expression? Where is the humility? Where is the humor? That’s why I started writing these songs so long ago.
– How has being a mom inspired this record and the education program?
Most people think I was inspired to write children’s songs because I had become a mom. It may happen for some artists. It’s not true for me. I started writing these songs long before I became a mother. It was really about teaching music and inspiring kids to enjoy learning.
-How did you have to pivot as a musician and songwriter to make this record and launch the program?
Making this record didn’t feel like a pivot at all. I was continuing to do my thing, touring, and making records while teaching on the side. Writing and recording these music education songs seemed like another branch of what I do. I had been tossing around the idea of launching a music education program for a while. First it was to be a “brick and mortar” type facility where kids and grownups could come for lessons, workshops, performances. Then COVID hit and I was relieved that I never opened up a physical space!
I started thinking about creating on-line content with my musical partner, Rene Hart, who comes from a jazz background, musically, and has a family background of education and visual arts. We started developing online material and coming up with ways to teach the lessons remotely. During the summer of 2020 we taught hundreds of these classes on Zoom and I continued to teach them throughout the next school year. We plan on developing more content this summer for a launch in the fall. Whether it is remote learning during COVID, or just a need for music education in general, this program is designed to give children another way to look at music theory. Music education is supposed to be fun. I believe this curriculum can help children, teachers, as well as parents get excited about learning the fundamentals of music.
-How is the adult audience for this record different from your past records? Or is it different at all? Are you simply delivering for fans who first discovered you decades ago, but are now moms and dads?
We are reaching out to educators as well as parents who have been fans of mine. We are reaching out to schools and libraries. We are casting a net to a demographic that is new to us. It is all a learning process.
-How has the pandemic affected you as a musician and songwriter?
The pandemic has forced me to reinvent myself. I’m no stranger to reinventing, but this time was really drastic. I was inspired by so many people making lemonade out of lemons during the pandemic. Some creatives really got their act together and embarked on new careers, made amazing art, made new platforms and curriculums that are so incredibly inspiring. I’m not technologically savvy but I would say that the pandemic has given me a new perspective on technology and how to use it and how to be a friend of it.
-Has the pandemic affected you as a mom?
The pandemic has definitely affected me as a mom. My son actually loved remote learning. Before his public school got their act together with the remote learning, I was homeschooling him. I got to see firsthand how he learned. What an opportunity! It was eye-opening to see how he processed things, how he thought, how he learned, and what he absorbed. These things were never privy to me when he went to public school. When you send your kid to public school, sometimes you feel like you’re just letting them walk into this institution and you don’t see them until 3 p.m. You may get a report card and you may get some information in the parent teacher meeting, but you really don’t see how he works, what makes him tick and how he learns or what he’s excited about. The homeschooling, for that brief period of time, was really eye-opening.
-Did making this record teach you anything new about yourself as a musician and songwriter?
Yes, it taught me that having fun is most important. Writing these songs was the most fun I’ve ever had writing. I feel like it’s really important these days to just have fun making your music, and doing your career because life is really short.
-What is your background as a music educator?
Yes, I have worked as a vocal instructor at the Rock Academy many years. I teach a Vocal Camp, and it has become quite successful. I have also taught in Brooklyn at the Gowanus Music Club, which is very much similar to School of Rock, but with a milder more indie rock approach. I grew up classically trained on the violin and piano, and that has given me so many tools for private teaching. I started becoming interested in early childhood music education after meeting Carmelo The Science Fellow in Brooklyn. Carmelo had opened the Brooklyn Preschool of Science and he gave me a platform for developing my curriculum based on the early childhood inspirations like “Schoolhouse Rock,” “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company.”
-You still own a home in Woodstock? If yes, does Woodstock, Ulster County and the Catskill Mountains inspire you in any way? Did they help inspire this record and the education program? It looks like Joe the Crow joined you for that video shoot in a forested area of Woodstock?
Joe the crow is a character I developed years ago in Woodstock, NY. I have many characters that have been inspired by living in Woodstock. Each character has been given a music fundamental. For instance, “One Note Joe, The Songless Crow” is a bird who believed he couldn’t sing more than one note. Woodstock definitely influenced my desire to write children’s music because the child inside of me loves nature. Nature has given me the space to explore the purity of my own spirit and the connection to the music in my child-heart. Also, I have taught many children in this area, and they are touched by nature and beauty and that inspires me.
-Can someone from outside the audience for this record take anything away from it? If yes, what can they take away?
Yes, people will enjoy the many different styles of music. It encompasses a wide array of feels and styles that align with the given story of the song. People can enjoy a new take on learning music theory and harmony. Young and old can find hidden lessons in the songs and the stories. Whether it is a music theory lesson or a story about working together as a group, the stories are engaging and humorous. All I can say is that it is never too late to learn about the fundamentals of music.
-Having a colossal amount of rock music fans enjoy your songs and records, and buy them, is one form of feedback that you are familiar with. How is the feedback coming for this record and this education program and how different is it from the traditional feedback you have received from your fanbase, in the past?
Anyone who releases an album of any kind these days does not have the same kind of feedback we were all used to in decades past. We don’t base how we are doing on sales anymore. We don’t base how we are doing by getting radio spins anymore. We don’t even know who our audience is beyond our social media followers. It is a much more personal experience, and expectations are much different. My feedback is on the ground with actual children when I teach these songs. In particular, I have students who are so hungry for it and they go home and download all of my songs and albums, including my grown-up albums, which I find hilarious.
-The education program seems like an AWFUL lot of effort, as opposed to writing a new crop of songs, recording them and delivering them to an audience, all of which you have plenty of experience with. Why expend all the effort with the new record and the education program? Why go to all the trouble?
Trouble? Did you say trouble? Thinking about bringing a new music education curriculum to children who are hungry for this kind of stuff is no trouble at all. You are right, it is a lot of work. But it is worth it. I do feel as though it is my calling. I still love making Tracy Bonham albums and playing shows with my six records and counting very much. In fact, the grown-up music I am making now is some of the most beautiful music I have ever made. But when it comes to the children, before they become discouraged with the world, with other people, and with the disappointing teachers with attitudes and shortcomings, these children need this kind of joyful approach to learning. It might actually insulate them from being discouraged by the negative voices out there in the world—that is my mission. And at the same time, I pledge to touch the hearts of my grownup fans when they come to see a live performance. It is not about the age of the fan, it is about how I can inspire and excite. It all goes hand in hand.