The Operating System and Liminal Lab


Does Music Make a Difference?

Bob Goldberg (for Exit Strata)

Hurricane Sandy spared our neighborhood. No blackouts, no houses lost, a few trees knocked down. We were lucky, and wanted to help. Shelters for evacuees were set up at John Jay High School (families) and the Park Slope Armory (senior citizens), and there were local sites for collecting donations and serving meals (Red Hook Initiative).
Frank McGarry, who teaches music at PS 321 suggested we offer to play for the people in the John Jay shelter, talked to the coordinators, and arranged a group to play for the families in the shelter on Halloween. About 8 of us showed up the first day, including several teachers from 321 and Brooklyn Conservatory – no rehearsal, but we knew many songs in common, and shared easily.
A few of us had brought some extra percussion instruments with us, which attracted the kids’ attention. We realized that they needed activity more than a concert. So when we returned the next day, we brought more instruments – maracas, tambourines, woodblocks, small drums. There were fewer musicians – and it became more of a jam session with the kids. 2-3 teachers with 8-10 kids in a given session.
During the next few days, several of us went to shelters and service sites to offer to play, in whatever way was needed. The volunteer coordinators were appreciative, and welcomed music.

All volunteer coordinated “wellness” schedule at the Park Slope Armory, converted into a shelter post-Sandy

Frank and I played for the dinner serving line at Red Hook one evening – folk songs, jazz standards. It was cold, so we had to take occasional breaks to warm our hands. The people on line, and those serving, sang or danced along sometimes, and many thanked us afterward. We also visited the Park Slope Armory, accompanying a movement class.
I went back to the John Jay shelter a few days later with Katie Mullins, a singer-songwriter who teaches with Brooklyn Conservatory. We shared songs and brought percussion for the kids to jam with us. At one point, I sang Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”, and saw a mother across the room singing along to her baby. The kids were enthusiastic, joining in on percussion (one boy set up a small drum kit, and kept a great beat). We got to talk to the kids about where they lived, what music they liked.
music brings relief, human contact… it reinforces our humanity.
In the wake of a disaster, shelter, food, water are essential, and cleaning up damage around people’s homes and neighborhoods is a high priority. I can’t say that music is of the same importance, but it brings relief, human contact. It is therapeutic, it reinforces our humanity. So many of the people we played for were thankful that we had brought some happiness and caring to them in their temporary surroundings.
Making music – singing and playing together – helps to build community. Playing together to help our neighbors also gave us a chance to exchange ideas and songs outside of our classrooms – to connect with our fellow teachers as well as our neighbors. The arts, in education and in our society, are too often treated as extras, non-essentials. Artists and teachers of the arts often struggle in a system that undervalues our work – appreciated by our colleagues and students, but denied steady employment and respect by the systems that fund and govern schools.
Visiting people in shelters broadened our perspective as well, as we met the many volunteers and residents, and saw the needs and the work that was being done. Community groups came together to help their neighbors, and I hope this will continue to inspire us to work together to confront the problems that face us, and to build the kind of society we can be proud to live in.
Bob Goldberg has been making music in public for more than 20 years, much of that time with accordion as his “main axe.” He moves freely between a wide range of styles, including American Roots music, Italian and French folk and pop, Klezmer, Basque, Irish, blues, rock, reggae, jazz, zydeco, tango, classical and modern.
Goldberg leads the Famous Accordion Orchestra, and has been a member of the bands Washboard Jungle and Le Nozze di Carlo. He has led a nine-piece accordion band for the celebrated “Angels and Accordions” at Green-wood Cemetery, and has performed at the Brooklyn Museum, Metropolitan Museum, Hudson Opera House, St Marks in the Bowery, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Annapolis City Hall, The Cyclone at Coney Island, Montauk Club, Don’t Tell Mama, Flynn Theater, Dixon Place, Soho Art Parade, Plymouth Church Yankee Fair, and at weddings and birthdays.
Bob has received grants from the Brooklyn Arts Council for the development of new work, and for the annual “World Tour of Brooklyn Gardens” series with the Famous Accordion Orchestra.
Editor’s Note: I worked with Bob years ago and wasn’t surprised when he replied to our recent post-hurricane editorial, “Thinking About Art at a Time Like This,” with an email about having gone to play in the shelters. The confluence of a need for immediate recovery efforts here at home with our growing relationship to the movement of co-creating social change exemplified by our partners at 100,000 Poets and Musicians for Change immediately clarified an opportunity for — and the importance of — a new series focused on creative efforts in Relief and Recovery, of which this is the first.
With the transmutation of the Occupy network into Occupy Sandy, a full service relief agency that many argue has been more effective, fluid, and organically responsive in every aspect of recovery efforts than FEMA and/or the Red Cross, it is hard to ignore the precedents that are both being set and being torn down: we are seeing in action how the combination of local coordinated efforts and intention linked with a pre-existing social network/media structure can be activated at any time in a way never before possible or, indeed, believable.
We are seeing the evolution of co-creation and collaboration, which has been catalyzed and actualized using technology tailored to a shared purpose: networks and media support systems built to facilitate the communication and coordination of a populace… not of its institutions. However, we are also seeing new, alternative institutions grow and thrive around the use of these methods, which work in harmony alongside (and often share resources with) the more freeform activism that springs up around times of crisis. Arts and culture organizations as well as direct service organizations are essential in these times, which remind us more than ever how much we need to be reminded, as Bob says, of our common humanity.
When we build communities around creative practice in times of relative peace, creating ties and feelings of comradery, and these communities are buoyed by a shared commitment to alignment, unity, and social change, these become more than networks, they become safety nets: families, support systems that rally and rely on their already existent infrastructure in times of crisis and need.
The creation of an alternative network of creative people that serves to unify us and break down barriers, especially at the scale of an effort as vast as 100TPC or A Big Project becomes, in these times, far more than an artistic revolution: it is simply a revolution.  In this work we “find the others,” and find ourselves in the process — and give ourselves the technical and operational background to motivate and provide support, resources, and manpower if and when action is needed… and inspiration, empowerment, and healing in the case of unforeseen circumstances.


You will see an ongoing series of Editorials and Awesome Creator posts in which I seek to highlight and curate an ongoing list of the incredible organizations providing critical creative relief to their communities both here and beyond, in countries and cities in need anywhere in the world.
Just this afternoon, I had the pleasure of being on a teleconference hosted by the terrific Arts and Democracy organization, which focused on this topic exactly — you can listen to a recording of the conversation here, and I will be posting more about all the inspiring organizations involved within the week. 

If you are engaged in or know of any relief work which is using creativity as a restorative tool, we’d love to hear from you!
Email us at


Post a Comment

1942 Amsterdam Ave NY (212) 862-3680
Free shipping
for orders over 50%