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A Song a Week

Lifelong learning? Doesn’t it ever end? When I graduated from kindergarten (with high honors as I was quite accomplished at taking naps and still am), I was told “one down, 12 more to go.”

What? It’s not that I disliked school; I just didn’t think it would take that long to learn everything. My parents never went past eighth grade, and they did fine.

Still, I went seven more years past high school graduation. Except for a couple of cringe-worthy years where I did know everything, every bit of new knowledge made me feel less educated. At some point I decided the smart strategy was to stop learning. I began to read less, go to fewer plays, but the opportunities for “education” were boundless and inescapable. I had to learn how to become an adult, navigate marriage, raise a child, have a career, suffer disappointment and loss. I have not earned high honors in any of these.

I knew that to live a satisfying life I would continue to learn. When I retired, I thought I would slow down. Maybe I’d read a little more, take a yoga class, master the remote, but nothing too challenging (the remote turned out to be too steep a learning curve).

Then three years ago I moved to Ashland from the East Coast after visiting a friend who had moved here. At first impression, this is an idyllic place — the Plaza, farmers market, Lithia Park, sweet bookstores, good coffee, and friendly people. But Ashland has a dark secret that reveals itself only after it’s too late and you are addicted. Ashlanders are an incurably curious lot.

I had never heard of Osher Lifelong Learning Institute before coming here. I guessed that it was probably an informal group of old people who played checkers. Maybe there have been classes like that because it seems there are classes on everything else.

When I checked out the catalog, I was stunned at how extensive the program was. I could enroll in a seminar on the migration of hummingbirds, the symphonies of Brahms, or writing a memoir. The instructors are wicked smart, and some students are smarter than the teacher, but here is the astonishing thing — people are really nice! They are almost always supportive, kind and curious.

So, thinking that I don’t have that many jumps left in me, I leaped. In only one OLLI term, I made it to the end of “Hamlet,” was astonished by the essays of David Foster Wallace, and watched 1930’s musical comedy films.

I thought maybe I could teach a class, but while I went to college to become an English teacher, I never taught. Like many in my age group, I was drawn into the vortex of something that didn’t suit me and instead navigated the world of corporate cubicles.

But I still wanted to teach, and I feel I’m only good at songwriting. I’ve been writing for 40 years, and in that time I’ve written hundreds of songs for children and adults (and a dog). Never making enough to sustain even a mild coffee habit, it has sustained me in so many ways. When you do something for a long time, you get kind of good at it, but that doesn’t mean you’re qualified to teach your craft. Still, I jumped.

I offered a class in songwriting knowing that the most I could offer were tips here and there about verse/chorus/bridge, rhyming schemes and phrasing, but the main thrust for writing a song is this — write a song.

That was basically the focus of my class of eight students, all of whom had written at least a few songs. Some students were accomplished and envy-engendering musicians, and others could barely play an instrument. Every week I talked about the craft of writing by listening to and discussing a beautifully crafted song, like the astonishing “Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke.

After some discussion we’d move on to talking about the art we had created throughout the week. Using my prompts, each week every student brought in a complete song. The songs were always surprising and sometimes amazing, especially since all were writing on deadline. But what was most moving was the tone of the room — completely supportive.

Teaching has been great because of the songs I’ve heard and the community we have, but also because during the term, I would write a song a week. Since lyrics without the melody is rarely effective, I leave you with a tune you were born knowing, “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie, but with new lyrics by me. Check it out: “This Land is Ashland” on https://tinyurl.com/ypnvzuar.

Denny Caraher had a multi-dimensional career working for the Navy, also becoming a lawyer and then a computer programmer. He is now an OLLI member and instructor and enjoying his passion of songwriting and music.