Archive for the ‘Music’ Category


A moment of pure joy

April 24, 2019

In recent years I’ve become less and less sure of how I want to use this blog. In part, I’ve become a bit more humble about the value of my opinions. For example, I have lots of things to say about Trump, but I don’t have any relevant expertise (besides a Ph.D., which reflects training in BS detection…), and my previous political posts have changed approximately zero minds, so what’s the point?  In addition, I’ve become increasingly cautious about sharing stories that are not entirely my own. My 12-year-old son may deserve more anonymity than I have given him up to this point, for example.

So my main options going forward are what? Endless navel-gazing, or complete silence? I’m not sure. For now, I thought I would share a moment that continues to make me smile a full day after it happened.

I’ve been getting a bit of media attention lately regarding my use of music to teach biology. Yesterday it was KOMO-4’s turn to visit my classes and interview me. I wanted to give them a good show, so I wrote a new version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” about the cross-bridges between actin and myosin inside muscle cells:


It’s a vocally demanding song, and not one especially suited to my plain, nasal voice, so I was nervous about singing it. As I began, I noticed that my nervousness had moved up my vocal range by at least a whole step; the low notes now felt REALLY low, and were hard to deliver with any volume.

The silver lining, though, was that the high notes were now easier to reach. As I neared the end of the song, I wondered whether I should abandon my original play-it-safe ending and go for the high note — the G above middle C that Barry Manilow hits in his version. Now almost delirious with adrenaline, I decided to go for it. Here is what happened next (via low-quality audio; the critical note comes about 33 seconds in):


So, yes, I hit the note, and the students clapped, and I felt GREAT.

It was partly an ego thing, of course: I had done something that was sort of impressive, and I received recognition for that. But it felt like something more than a personal triumph. It felt like a moment of artistic beauty — created by me, yes, but also Paul Simon, who wrote a beautiful song, and Art Garfunkel, who sang it so well, and Barry Manilow, who provided the dramatic ending, and Ameritz Karaoke, who created a superb backing track, and KOMO-4, whose interest prompted me to do this song, and Andrea Brown, who wrote the Everett Herald article that got KOMO-4 interested, and Jenny Marin, who wrote the EvCC press release that got Andrea Brown interested, and my coauthors Sarah Ward, Becca Price, and Katie Davis, who helped me write the journal article that led to the press release … and my students, whose interest made the performance meaningful.

It was beautiful, and I got to be a part of it, and that was totally exhilarating!

When can I do something like that again?


The present of the future

December 19, 2017

This is quite possibly the coolest gift I’ve ever received.

What you’re seeing and hearing in that video is a Fisher-Price Music Box-Record Player from the 1970s … playing a custom 3D-printed toy record of a song I wrote about the birth of my younger son.

My wife used a free software program to create a music-box-style arrangement of the song and create a SCAD file. Then she used a different free program, OpenSCAD, to create an STL file that could be 3D-printed.

And how did she know how to do all this? She followed the directions in a hobbyist’s blog post, of course.



New Do Interview

December 8, 2017

Five years ago, I interviewed fellow Seattlite Do Peterson on my “Sing About Science” blog. Now I’ve interviewed him in conjunction with the release of his next CD, Ideation. Here is the start of the interview.

GC: Do, your new album is called IDEATION. Help us understand this title.

DP: Yes, the album is called IDEATION. This title comes from my struggle this year to recover from mental illness with suicidal ideation. IDEATION does not just apply to bad thoughts though. The word also has broader meaning: a synthesis of ideas. My process of healing has involved recognizing and reworking unhealthy ideas about success, family, love and friendship. IDEATION speaks to the journey of synthesizing memories and experiences into healthier ideas. So in this way IDEATION alludes to both disease and remedy. The songs in IDEATION were inspired by both, starting from emotional darkness, illness, despair and shame, progressing through helpful but imperfect therapies, and ending with discovery of light, belonging, love, resiliency, and healthier scaffolding to step forward.

Do’s website,, has the rest of the interview.


Special announcement: an online conference devoted entirely to educational songs!

May 1, 2017

Here is something I’ve been working on behind the scenes for a while:

VOICES: Virtual Ongoing Interdisciplinary Conferences on Educating with Song

I’ve made a few quick comments about this at my other (equally neglected) blog … but I mostly want you to go to the VOICES website and explore that. And ask me questions, if you have them!



Introducing Samuel John Zelnick-Crowther

February 4, 2017


My son Phil, 10, now has a younger brother. Leila gave birth to Sam on January 31st.

Me being me, I have been processing this event, in part, by writing a letter (below) and a lullaby.

* * * * * *

Dear Sam,

The circumstances surrounding your birth were both unique and universal.

While your mother was deep in the throes of labor, she listened to music played on the mbira, a “thumb piano” of metal keys that was developed in Africa thousands of years ago.  In particular, she listened repeatedly to a song called “Tadzungaira” (“We Are Suffering”) as performed by the Zimbabwean mbira master Forward Kwenda.  

Mbira songs like this one have a relatively short “theme” of what might be considered 8 to 16 measures of Western music.  But those 8 to 16 measures are repeated over and over and over, with a seemingly infinite number of improvised variations.  A single song may last 30 minutes or more.

Mbiras often defy time in another sense, too.  Traditionally, they are played by the Shona people of Zimbabwe to summon the spirits of ancestors.  In other words, they connect the people of today with those of the past.

Here in the United States, mbiras are virtually unknown.  If the doctors and nurses who attended your birth had given the matter any thought, they might have been incredulous that a white woman raised in Oklahoma and living in Seattle would, in the depths of her despair, draw strength and tranquility from the plucking of an African instrument that they had never heard of.

Yet she did.  She was hurting profoundly, but she knew the stakes and soldiered on, steady and insistent, like an mbira melody that would not be stopped.

As I listened to your mother’s grunts and groans intermingled with Forward Kwenda’s ceaseless variations on “Tadzungaira,” I felt a rare solidarity with humankind.  While your mother’s struggle to deliver you was specific to her situation — her life history, her anatomy, her hospital — it was also a struggle as old and as familiar as the human race itself.  African women were giving birth long, long before the first mbira was a gleam in its maker’s eye.

Sam, you are here today as a unique descendant of your unique mother.  There has never been another person quite like you, and there never will be.  But you are also here as someone connected to those who have gone before you, those who are with you now, and those who will follow.  

Sam, I will strive to love you both for what you share with these others and for what makes you different.  You, in turn, should strive to love others this fully.  At times this will be hard — perhaps as hard as childbirth itself, and just as important.   Please do your best.



* * * * * *


* * * * * *

Update, Feb. 16th: Here is Leila’s birth-day narrative.


Recent videos

December 5, 2016

As long as I’m using this blog to support family causes such as my parents’ anti-fluoridation work, I should also throw in a plug for my sister’s company’s new video, which nicely showcases their customizable dresses and headbands for girls 3-7 and their dolls. Great fun for those who enjoy spontaneous, open-ended accessorizing!

Other recent videos of possible interest: my song Cranial Nerve Functions, performed by Do Peterson; my song Kidney Wonderland, performed by me at the UW Nephrology holiday party.


A shameless plug for the music of my friend Do Peterson

July 31, 2015

My good, good friend Do Peterson, a musician-turned-biostatistician, has turned back to the full-time pursuit of music. He is a gifted and hard-working songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. His music is not easily categorized, but “folk rock” is perhaps as good a label as any. Please check him out at


OK, sure, I’ll play

April 1, 2015

Thanks to my friend Holly for pointing me to Song Lyrics in Chart Form and challenging me to do better.

And so, without further ado…

Things that Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock KNOW:
1. just how to whisper
2. just how to cry
3. just where to find the answers
4. just how to lie
5. just how to fake it
6. just how to scheme
7. just when to face the truth
8. just when to dream
9. just where to touch you
10. just what to prove
11. when to pull you closer
12. when to let you loose
13. the night is fading
14. time’s gonna fly
15. I’ve got to … try [to tell you everything I’ve got to tell you]
16. the road to riches
17. the ways to fame
18. all the rules
19. how to break ’em [i.e., the rules]
20. the name of the game

The VALUE of this knowledge, until given to you:

Things that Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock CAN MAKE:
1. the runner stumble
2. the final block
3. every tackle, at the sound of the whistle
4. all the stadiums rock
5. tonight [last] forever
6. it [i.e., the night] disappear by the dawn
7. every promise that has ever been made
8. all your demons be gone

Things that Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock ARE NEVER GONNA MAKE:
1. it, without you
2. love out of nothing at all


Dear Mr. DJ…

June 15, 2014

First of all, I want you to know how lucky I feel to have you DJing my wedding. What a relief it is to know that this critical aspect of the event will be in such good hands! You know music, you know me and Leila, and you know how to read crowds, so you’ll do a terrific job. We trust you completely.

Nevertheless, since you’ve asked for guidance on what I want to hear at the reception, the following thoughts may be helpful.

For starters, can we please avoid “I Will Survive”? Yes, it gets people dancing, but it’s basically a tale of stalker-ish behavior — not great source material for this particular occasion. Ditto for “Every Breath You Take” (The Police) and “Possession” (Sarah McLachlan). Actually, beyond stalker songs per se, let’s just veto all songs about ill-advised romances. Even ones like “Stacy’s Mom,” in which the relationship is mostly hypothetical. That still leaves us with plenty of good, wholesome songs, right?

Speaking of wholesome: since many family members of varying ages and tastes will be present, we probably shouldn’t use music that is fixated on specific body parts (“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” comes to mind), the physical act of making love (“Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood), or one-night stands (“December, 1963 [Oh What A Night]”). Likewise, I have no interest in tracks that condone excessive drinking (“Margaritaville”), drug use (“Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35”), reckless driving (“Fun Fun Fun”), belligerence (“Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting”), lying (“Better Man”), larceny (“Been Caught Stealing”), egotism (“Big Time”), or jingoism (“God Bless the USA”). Or carelessness with baked goods (“MacArthur Park”).

Not everyone who will be at the wedding is married or in a relationship, so we should avoid songs about the hardships of being single. But if a song sounds too lovey-dovey, that gets uncomfortable as well. I guess what I’m saying is that you should play realistic love songs — stuff like “Love The One You’re With.” Well, not that one, because it seems to advocate “settling,” and this marriage is NOT an example of that. But you get the idea, don’t you?

I hope it goes without saying that any song over five minutes long (“American Pie,” “Stairway To Heaven”) is tedious and unwanted. This is a wedding reception, not a Grateful Dead show.

We’ll probably need some mellow tunes for the cocktail hour, but let’s not use Dar Williams. She’s an alum of Wesleyan, and, as you know, Leila and I went to Williams — Wesleyan’s rival in the Little Three. So we really want to feature Williams artists if at all possible — for instance, Fountains of Wayne, co-founded by Chris Collingwood ’89 and Adam Schlesinger ’89. Just don’t play their biggest hit, “Stacy’s Mom” (see above).

Some songs, while safe according to the above criteria, are just too sad for a wedding. Any Beatles song, for example, will remind people of John Lennon’s tragic demise. So please do not feature anyone who died prematurely. (This includes Mozart, by the way.)

I realize that these restrictions are a lot to keep track of. Would it be easier if I just provided a list of songs that you CAN play? You know, totally uncontroversial material like, say, “99 Luftballons.” Oh, wait a minute — the accidental release of the titular balloons supposedly causes a war or something. I’m not sure, because the lyrics are in German, but just to be safe, let’s skip that one too.

Tell you what — let me think about this a bit more and get back to you.


Random thoughts while procrastinating, #2057

May 31, 2014

Whenever I hear “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” or “Knock Three Times,” I chafe at the preposterous scenarios therein. How can Tony Orlando & Dawn have not one but TWO #1 hits celebrating convoluted communication strategies? Why can’t their characters just use words?

That thought is often followed by another one, though: given the existence of these two atrocious nonverbal-communication songs, wouldn’t it be nice if TO&D had a third one, just to complete the set?

I’m imagining something like, “If You Can’t Stay Away, Make Me A Soufflé; Otherwise, Pasta Is Fine.”