The Musical Clown

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I had a great day working in the hospital today. My partner was Reuben Haller, who like me is a musician. Working with Reuben got me thinking about the different ways we use music as clowns in our work in the hospital.

 I've come to see that most of the music by clowns fit under two different styles.  One is an approach that is atmospherical, more prone to be improvised. The second is a more structured, routine based.

Here's how these musical approaches effects hospital clowning. 

Atmospherical Music

A lot of my hospital closing work involves music. One of my favorite things to do is to play music as I'm traveling the halls of the hospital. I play catchy, upbeat music. Recently I've been playing some bossa nova tunes. This music serves as a way of introducing ourselves to those around us. I discussed this dynamic in a previous clown fear post on my blog here.

Sometimes we use the term "Musical wash "to describe this. We may travel through an area playing music as we go. It doesn't have to be an actual song; it could be a riff or a tune without the words.

 I was working with a clown partner who said that she always felt like she had her own personal musical score as she worked with me. I think this best describes this atmospheric approach of music. I often think of this as a way of musically scoring the dramatic action of our work in the same way that a composer scores a movie.  Depending on the artistic choice the music may heighten or lower the tension. Various musical approaches can introduce a character or comments on the action as it's happening or anticipate a change of tone. I especially like this style because it makes the music a separate artistic element used to compliment another creative factor. 

Music as a routine

The other form of music which I see in our work is quite different. This form presents the music strictly as a standalone presentation. It's as if you are  present this song by saying, "I am going to play a song for you." You play the song. And you close by saying, "Now I am done with playing this song." This musical approach makes the music itself much more of a standalone routine, in the same way that a magic trick may be presented. At times, I like using songs in this approach as material for this method. One of the ways of doing this is to make the introduction, performance, and close of the song an actual routine onto itself. As with any other type of standalone routine., This approach may take more rehearsal and setup time to create. That said, I've seen this approach work well for a performer who might not be comfortable in a more improvised musical approach mentioned earlier. I've seen many new clowns who are drawn to this approach because it can be rehearsed with planned dramatic beats in the routine. The rehearsal aspect can make some clowns feel "safer" performing this way.

I've found it useful to know which approach you are taking musically. With either of these styles, it's best to have to be very comfortable with the instrument you're playing and the music you are presenting. Any performance environment will have distractions. The hospital will provide even more distractions with medical staff and family. There is no substitute for truly knowing the musical material and knowing your instrument well. I have seen some musicians, myself included, make a mistake of playing content before it was ready.   Whichever approach you use atmospherical or routine make sure you know your stuff well.  

Fear of clowns #3 - A solution.

Fear of clowns #3 - A solution.

In my previous post about clown fears, I talked about ways of dealing with Coulrophobia, fear of Clowns.

Now it's time for the solution. In my experience, the best way to address this problem is to use whatever skills you have to make your audience laugh, give them something interesting to see, provide them with music that will make them want to sing. Simply put, The best way to address this issue is with an artistic approach. More importantly, a creative challenge. The best approach is to prove your worth as an entertainer.

Make them laugh. Give them a reason to say, WOW! Give them music that will make them want to dance.

I have seen some clowns who expect their audience to like them just because they are a …clown. The mere fact of being a person in clown makeup seems to be the main focus of the performer. I've seen some get offended when the mere fact of their clown existence is not celebrated. Instead, I say, demonstrate your worth to your audience.

One of my favorite things to do in the hospital is to play music. Nineteen years ago I started my career as a hospital clown. The accordion was my first instrument as a clown. (I played the piano as a teenager. Later in my 20s, I began playing the piano accordion because I liked the portability of the instrument. That's where my name "Squeeze "comes from.) For the past 16 years, I've been playing the ukulele as the main instrument in my hospital work. Many people hear this music before they see me. The music may make them want to pad their feet to the rhythm. When this happens, I am effectively introduced by music. This music is how I get acquainted with the audience.

Music isn't the only way of doing this. Sometimes I introduce myself with a hat trick or by juggling as walk. These skills are valuable assists for a clown. It would benefit a clown to have a method of demonstrating this in their repertoire. Something they can use to engage their audience member somewhat subversively to entertain them.

With this approach, the audience often sees the activity first. They hear the music, they see the juggling they hear laughter from someone else as they approach. This act of doing can be essential in overcoming the clowns fear.

It's the doing of clown that can alleviate the anxiety and clown fear

This is the artistic challenge a clown can take to address the fear.

In a future post, I will discuss ways of dealing with "borderline situations." Positive ways of coping with clown apprehension.

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Big Brother Artistic Inspiration

I grew up in the shadow of my big brother. He was an artist before I was. I watched as he learned to play music and I watched as he began his life in visual art. I followed in his footsteps. Eventually, I stuck with music and became a performance artist. He stayed with the visual arts of painting, drawing, and photography.

Today is April 4. It would have been my brother, James Gordon’s 56th birthday. However, he’ s not with us anymore. I have several of his photos and drawings hanging on the walls of my home. I think about how gregarious he was. I always envied his ability to be social and make new friends.

He passed away from complications with AIDS in 1994. He was 31.


I miss my big brother.

Happy birthday Jim!

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Fear of Clowns (post #2)

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As professional clowns, we sometimes see people who have a fear of us. Often this fear is exaggerated. I've seen adults run from the room in a panic only because a clown has been in their presence. That sounds crazy! It looks even more insane when you see it happen. As irrational as that fear is, it's essential to understand where it comes from. Many people have a genuine concern that a clown is going to do something to them, Throw a pie in their face, spray water on them from the clown lapel. These are overused cliches.

Some people use the presence of a clown as a reason for their emotional outburst. This is where we see the fear exaggerated. Sometimes these extreme feelings swing to hatred of a clown. Others will avert their eyes as if merely seeing the clown will cause them harm. These reactions are the opposite of what we clowns want.

For others, the site of a clown is joyous and happy.

Let them go...

In my experience, I've learned that the best way to handle the fear is to not participate in the emotional swing of these feelings. It's best to resist the urge to deal with this problem by trying to fix the fear. If you are a clown and someone doesn't want to be in the room with you so much that they run away, ...Let them go. Running after them will not make the situation better.

Let's talk...

Another reaction I've seen some clowns try is to "talk it out." This involves explaining. It's usually some form of a conversation where the clown tries to show that they are not scary. The clown talks about by her/his professional training or some rational explanation as to why the person should not be afraid. This is a well-intended, but faulty approach in my opinion. It's understandable that we don't want people to be afraid of us but talking about doesn't serve our purpose.

"I work hard at this..."

Being a professional clown takes work, dedication, and commitment. Many of us have trained for years as an acrobat/improviser/ juggler/ musician, physical theater/magic. We take pride in our work. We have honed these skills into an art form. We are eager to share the art of clowning.

However, I believe it's crucial to keep in mind that the people who have a fear of clowns haven't put much serious thought into this issue. They are reflexively expressing a feeling. This reflexive expression could just as easily be about, NASCAR, or Taylor Swift. Imagine if someone came up to you and insisted that you listen to their favorite Tay Tay song, or they expected you to listen to them talk about a stock car driver. Taylor Swift and NASCAR are very popular among those people who know and like them. That said, many people have little or no interest in either of them.

I've seen instances where a clown has taken his or her time to patiently explain why one should not be afraid of clowns. The explanation includes details about clown training and includes solid rational reasons why they should not be frightened of clowns.

As I've said, most people don't care about that. They are not expressing a thought based on carefully considered rational thought. They are reflexively responding. Someone may see some positive results after explaining to a fearful person. This person may be persuaded to not be afraid. Again it's not crucial for that person to understand this fear. After all the explaining they may agree with you. However, the next time they see a clown they are not likely to care about the well thought out rationale you gave them. They are more likely to fall back on to the reflexive reaction they have always had.

All this is to say that the best approach in dealing with the clown fear is to not focus on their fear. It is best to have another method.

I will share details about this in my next clown fear post.

Good drama does that.

I recently helped produce an original musical by my church. This was the second production our church has done. Last year we did  Godspell junior. For this year we decided to commission two local artists, Dardy Guinn, and Ash Anderson, to write an original musical about our church's history. Oakhurst Presbyterian a small church in Decatur, GA. We wanted this production to reflect on our churches history.  This history includes the civil rights struggles that happened here in Atlanta. These issues affected not only the city but also the church. We also wanted the show to address issues of today's world like gender identity in the LGBTQ world and the student-led movement for gun control. That's a lot to cover. I'm proud of the show we created. The cast of the show reflected the congregation. It was multi-generational, (with actors from 10 years old to 86 years) and multiracial.

One of the highlights during the show for me was looking into the audience and seeing one of the" senior" members of the congregation. She was sitting in one of the pews with tears rolling down her face. At first, I was concerned for her, later I realized she was just having a cathartic moment. Yesterday I received a card from her. Where is what she said

"....The play was so meaningful to me. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for our 29 years in this remarkable faith community. It brought me to tears. Good to drama can do that. Thank you so much for being such an important part of our Oakhurst players."

 With love and admiration

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New Music Bossa nova

I’ve been listening to a lot of bossa nova recently. It started when I found myself listening to the  Antonio Carlos Jobin station on Pandora. I wanted to play more music like this. I took some basic bossa chords, ( Cmaj7, Am7, Dm7, G, G7)  and practiced playing them. As I was doing this I heard the melody of “twinkle twinkle little sta in the chords changes. I added a whistling improv as an intro. Here is the result.  I’ve been doing this in the hospital a lot recently. 

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Fear of Clowns

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Coulrophobia is an irrational fear of clowns.

Fear of clowns is a big issue in my world. As a professional clown, I come across this issue more often than I would like. What drives this fear is irrational. More importantly, as a professional clown, I’ve learned that our reaction to this fear can be handled positively or it can be handled poorly making the clown fear worse.

First a little bit about the actual fear. There is a belief in our culture that clowns are scary. You can go to the Stephen King character Pennywise as an example. Someone who’s lurking in the dark eager to do something evil. Part of the power of this bad clown example is that it takes the idea of what should be happy, joyful delightful and it turns it into something evil and scary. It’s an inherent dichotomy. What could be more frightening than something that should be happy but instead is really evil? In summer 2016, this clown fear got out of control. There were news stories of people complaining about clowns. It became a meme. The situation peaked as it usually does at Halloween. Eventually in late 2016 clown phobia subsided to its pre-existing constant level.

Most of my dealings with clowns phobias are in my work as a hospital clown. I’ve been working at the hospital clown since 2000. I began working with the Big Apple Circus in 2000 and have continued to do this work with an organization called Humorology Atlanta. During my time as a hospital clown, I have seen patients, family and staff members who have this fear. I’ve seen some good ways to address this issue. I’ve also witnessed a few easy mistakes and pitfall in dealing with this. I will discuss some of these mistakes in future posts here in my blog. Then I will move on to what I believe are the best practices and approaches for dealing with coulrophobia.

Diversity call for clowns

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Today I had a conference call with several other clowns from around the country. We were talking about ideas to make our clowns and our medical clown team leadership more aware of racial and LGBTQ diversity.

This is a difficult subject to discuss. Many of us in the arts and performing community assume that we already have a good understanding of these types of issues. My experience has taught me that's not always the case. I did find some comfort in a few people at the American Circus Educators conference here in Decatur this past October. It was refreshing to hear the issue of diversity brought up by so many white people. There was an effort to understand the problem in a way that I haven't seen in other places. I hope that our conversation today will be the first step in bringing this up in a productive way.