Plato once wrote that “music is a more potent instrument than any other for education, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.” For Tracy Bonham, the opportunity to vivify the souls of children through music comes 25 years after she bared her own on her searing 1996 debut “The Burdens of Being Upright.”
While the journey from Grammy-nominated alt-rock sensation to music educator may appear surprising to those who have fallen out of touch with her career since then, the passion with which she approaches her latest venture feels like the manifestation of a lifelong interest. Her disillusionment with the public school system’s tenuous commitment to the arts combined with her own invaluable experiences within that system inspired her to start using her platform to change lives one lesson at a time.
She launched Melodeon Music House in 2020 and has since streamed hundreds of classes online during a pandemic that necessitated virtual learning as the new normal. I corresponded with Bonham via email recently to discuss her aspirations for the program as well as her new album, “Young Maestros Vol. 1,” which is set to drop on April 16.
MNOD: Where did your interest in music education originate from?
Bonham: I have always been passionate about music education. My mother is a retired music educator and we both share a genuine love for children and learning. I had become disappointed with what I saw in the public school systems and the widespread budget cuts for the arts. I want all young people to have the education I had growing up in Eugene, OR in the 1980s. I have always wanted to share my appreciation for the fantastic music and drama teachers I had in school and in private lessons. These people shaped me as a musician and as a human being. They taught me technique, but they also taught me about enthusiasm and ambition.
MNOD: What are your long-term aspirations for Melodeon Music House?
Bonham: I hope to build a platform for learning for all ages. I want to teach the fundamentals of music while helping people overcome obstacles in their lives through music and mindfulness. I want to create a community of music enthusiasts of all ages.
MNOD: What has the response been like from students so far?
Bonham: Before COVID, I taught my curriculum in person at the Brooklyn Preschool of Science and I began teaching remotely since the pandemic started. This has given me the opportunity to see what works and what children, and their respective teachers, respond to. What I witness is engagement and an excitement for learning. My goal has been to hide the lessons inside the fun songs, along with stories, games, and activities so that they feel levity and a joy without realizing this is a lesson. It is interactive and I witness them participating with curiosity and excitement. When it is a song about listening, they slow down and listen.
MNOD: Streaming these classes allows you to reach an even wider audience. Was that brought on by the pandemic or something that you wanted to incorporate all along?
Bonham: Yes, I had never streamed a class before the pandemic. I was seriously considering opening a “brick and mortar” business for Melodeon Music House at one point. I am truly happy I didn’t.
MNOD: I’ve interviewed a number of artists through the years and they’ve all had varying opinions on formal music education. As a classically trained musician yourself, what do you feel are the benefits of formal learning as opposed to being self-taught?
Bonham: I value my education more than anything. I am proud of it. In the classical world you need good teachers. I believe it would be next to impossible to teach yourself all that there is to learn. I would not have been inspired to practice as much as I did without great teachers.
MNOD: How did your upcoming album, “Young Maestros, Vol. 1,” come together?
Bonham: I started writing these songs just for fun, inspired by the educational programs of my youth like SchoolHouse Rock, Electric Company, and Sesame Street. I continued to write more, adding themes of empowerment and self realization much like Free To Be You To Me. It became obvious over the years that I was creating much more than just an album of children songs. It was becoming a curriculum, and a philosophy, and my life’s ambition to reach young music enthusiasts (of all ages) and help people find the passion for learning and the music in their hearts.
MNOD: When composing music for children, how do you decide what will keep them engaged?
Bonham: I try not to pander to kids in my music. I am not afraid to ask them to engage. This can be challenging, especially these days with all the distractions. But kids are kids and when the spark inside them is lit it doesn’t matter if it is from a soccer game, or a meme on YouTube, or a great song that makes them want to move their bodies. They also like stories. I have watched students’ faces change as they hear my story about One Note Joe The Song-less Crow. They show concern and empathy with the character who was told he could only sing one note by a mean teacher from his childhood.
MNOD: I read once that yoga has influenced your musical outlook. How exactly has it impacted your work?
Bonham: Yoga is a big part of my life. It has taught me to stay centered in the midst of change, and as we all know life is about change. This has been invaluable when it comes to my performances and it has started to influence my writing too. I love Yoga because it is all about the present moment. Children are in the present moment most of the time. If I can achieve one thing, with this album in particular, it would be to encourage children (of all ages) to keep their ability to stay in the present moment, to stay tuned in to their bodies, to others, and to the world around them as much as possible.
MNOD: “The Burdens of Being Upright” is an album that has spoken to me since the first day I heard it and I thought that your 2017 update was excellent. What was it like to revisit that material after all that time?
Bonham: Modern Burdens was originally going to be a 20th anniversary re-record of The Burdens of Being Upright. I wanted to do it for the fans, but I also knew it would be a good business move because the original master recordings are owned by Island Records in perpetuity. A lot of bands from the 90’s (with the big record deals) sold the rights to their master recordings to their record labels. Bands or artists would not be paid a licensing fee for the master recordings if one of their songs was licensed for a big movie. If there is an exact replica, or a re-record, it is very easy to switch it out and submit that master recording and earn the income. But after I tried to re-record the material I became incredibly bored and I realized that this wasn’t art. My co-producer, John Wlaysewski, and I decided to let go of this idea and make something completely unique. I had a hard time at first because the material was from a different time. It was a different Tracy. But I realized that the songs could be relevant because in 2016, when we were recording Modern Burdens, our nation was experiencing a lot of pain and there was a lot of talk about misogyny. This whole album is about a misogynistic boyfriend so I just imagined someone else being the target of my wrath instead of the ex-boyfriend. I asked 7 amazing female artists to sing a track on the album and it felt like a tribute album. It was amazing.
MNOD: Given how much both you and the music industry have changed since the ’90s, is there anything that you miss from your time in the mainstream or was dealing with the rigidity of a major label not really worth it?
Bonham: I miss some things about that time, for sure. I miss traveling the world the most. I miss playing music for people from all corners of the globe. What an experience. But I don’t miss the way it felt when I realized that I was stuffing the pockets of the record label execs while bearing my soul to them. I thought they were my friends, naively. I thought they cared about music. It is better to not have to rely on folks like them anymore.
Tracy Bonham’s “Young Maestros, Vol. 1” comes out April 16.
For more information regarding Melodeon Music House, visit www.melodeonmusichouse.com
One thought on “Music and Mindfulness: A Conversation with Tracy Bonham”
Tracy is flipping amazing. I highly recommend her entire music catalog. Mark my words, if the rest of this album is a good as the first two songs, I smell another Grammy nomination in her future.