Martha Haehl's life in music spans decades. A native Texan whose early musical education covered everything from the flute, piano and saxophone to choir singing, Haehl's subsequent move to Kansas City introduced her to guitar-based folk music. Today Haehl can play upwards of 11 different instruments in addition to being an accomplished songwriter and performer. In her Listen Local interview, Haehl discusses her passions for both music and mathematics, the time she performed on A Prairie Home Companion as well as why there is a mathematical reason why playing out of tune literally hurts our ears.
Tell us about yourself. How long have you been a musician and songwriter?
I often joke that I sang before I talked. Although I’m not sure how accurate that is, I don’t remember a time in my life when I did not sing. My mother, father, sister, brother and I entertained ourselves by singing—while working, on long road trips or just relaxing around the piano. I sang in church choirs and numerous duets, trios or quartets. My older sister, Ruth, and I sang our first duet in a church in Clarendon, Texas when I was around seven years old. After the first verse, Ruth nudged me and said “sing louder.” Everyone laughed.
In elementary school and junior high, music and recess were the fun breaks of the day to clear our brains to learn the more boring subjects such as reading, writing and arithmetic. In third grade, my mother taught in a two room country school about 10 miles from Clarendon. Once a week a piano teacher came after school and taught students who signed up for private instruction. Those lessons, a couple of semesters of voice and flute lessons in school and some scattered private lessons as an adult were the bulk of my individual musical training. My fifth grade music teacher in Clarendon taught us the basics of music theory—the names of the notes on the staff, what was meant by key and time signatures, how notes were spaced in a major scale and what notes make up a major chord. We also learned about the I, IV, and V chords, the chordal structure for many simple songs.
In the Glendale, Oregon junior high band, I played flute one year then moved on the saxophone because it was loud. As a freshman, I then sang in the Glendale high school choir and the girl’s triple trio. My last three years of high school, I sang in the Federal Way, Washington high school choir; in my junior year, I was in the girl’s trio and as a senior in the newly formed 16-voice Madrigal singers.
At Wayland Baptist College in Plainview, Texas, I was in the International Choir for two years until I dropped out to take a required course for my major in mathematics. To prepare for our performances and the annual spring tour, we practiced five full days before school began then an hour a day in the fall and spring semesters. At Wayland, I had easy access to a piano—either in the dormitory lobby or in one of the music department’s practice rooms. I could always find an open practice room because invariably, a student assigned to a room wasn’t practicing. For me, it was fun, not practice.
I bought a guitar in graduate school because that was the first time I did not have access to a piano. My first guitar, a small hand-made 12-string guitar, was hard to play but had a beautiful sound. A house mate sold me the guitar, showed me five or six chords and gave me a guitar chord chart and a Salvation Army song book. I knew all of the songs and a few hours later I could muddle through all of them in a couple of keys. After I finished my MA in math, I took a Folk University (non-credit community) guitar class at the University of Kansas—KU. The class was in the basement of the KU’s Canterbury House, the meeting place for the Episcopal student group. I became a regular at the Friday and Saturday open mike in the Fiery Furnace coffee house in the basement and began playing guitar for the folk mass held once a week at Canterbury House. A flutist often played with me and when I moved to Denver, away from my new-found musical community in Lawrence, I bought a flute and began to play again. I also sang in a church choir and in Denver’s community choir, The Classic Chorale.
When I moved back to Lawrence in 1976, a new music community was emerging. There were weekly bluegrass and old time fiddle jam sessions at Off The Wall Hall, a concert hall behind a music store. Those jams started a lifetime love for jamming which have inspired me to hone my musical skills and expand my repertoire to new songs and styles of music. Often musical arrangements emerge spontaneously that are far more exciting than the sum of the parts. Jamming also brings together people of many walks of life and life views, who might be at odds politically or religiously, but enjoy personal connections that come from harmonizing together.
On Friday or Saturday nights, I often drove to the Foolkiller in Kansas City for folk music concerts and jams after the shows. At the Foolkiller, I was introduced to a variety of new styles of folk music and met other musicians including three women who along with me founded Rosy’s Bar and Grill. We were an acoustic music, feminist group that sang songs about women’s experiences. In the summer of 1978 we took a nine week tour of the West Coast, Canada, Minnesota and Ohio. At the end of the tour, I moved to Kansas City because music was pulling me to Kansas City three or four three or four times a week.
In Kansas City, I have played in a number of groups. The ones with the most longevity were 1) Rosy’s Bar and Grill, 2) The Waffles—a string band folk music group, 3) Wit’s End—a women’s rock ‘n’ roll band and 4) Checkered Past—a folk music string band. I currently perform big band songs, swing, 50s and 60s, country, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, gospel, and more with Karen Hendricks. I also play solo gigs, participate in songwriter’s events and I still jam every chance I get.
You can play 11 instruments, including the dobro, saxophone and autoharp. How does your approach to songwriting change with each instrument?
I haven’t thought about this much, but a confluence of the sound and ease of fingering on an instrument does influence what melody emerges. Instruments have songs inside them waiting to be unlocked and in my hands, different tunes come out based on my skill level at the time and my mood or my state of mind. Tunes developed on the fiddle are influenced by bowing variations. Double stops (playing two notes simultaneously) can inspire a raucous hoedown type tune or a sweet country style slow dance tune with built in harmony. The flute, on the other hand, tends to yield happy lilts or soulful blues melodies. When I compose with piano or guitar, the beat and chord structure are the initial focus from which a tune is built. That said, I generally compose on the instrument most readily available. I used mandolin to put together A Russian Miracle—a waltz that I play mostly on the fiddle—because the mandolin was small and non-intrusive enough to play in the back of a van on a road trip. I composed Granddad’s Waltz, also a fiddle tune, on a friend’s piano while waiting for her family to get ready to go out for dinner. When writing the lyrics and melody together, I prefer guitar, piano, ukulele or some other instrument that allows me to play and sing at the same time. Or I may just create a tune along with lyrics without any instrument then layer in chords and rhythm later.
Describe your songwriting process. Who or what inspires you? How do you break through creative blocks?
I don’t have any particular set process. Sometimes a melody just comes to me and later I come up with words for the tune or decide the tune is complete as an instrumental without lyrics. Something I hear or read may trigger a song idea. Once I read a news clip about an elderly woman who slowly drove on the sidewalk on her small-town one-block main street one direction, then drove back on the sidewalk on the other side of the street. A policemen watching her asked her why she did that. She answered, “I never did anything wrong in my life. I just had to know how it felt.” A friend and I built a back story about the perfect life she had lived up to that incident.
The Overtime Blues came after staying at friends’ house while playing music in Wichita, Kansas. I rarely saw my friend that weekend because he was working most of the time. He had a good paying job, so it was hard to turn down overtime, even harder to turn down double time for Sunday, which he could get only if he had already worked overtime that week, and even more difficult to turn down triple pay on holidays, which he could only get if he had already worked overtime and Sunday. He lamented that he had no time to play music. I wrote the “Overtime Blues” about the dilemma of making a lot of money versus playing music. That particular song has a repetitive refrain and only took me about an hour to write.
The Table, on the other hand, took a lot of planning, thinking and tweaking. I wanted to write a song about quilting to honor my mother who was a quilter. I never got a handle on a song that I thought did justice to my mother or her work. Then a line came to me, “I’m an old table waiting to be sold, made from maple sixty years ago.” Our family had a table; it was the sewing table, the dining room table, the bill-paying table, the game table and the overflow kitchen counter. Mother cut out quilt pieces and sewed them together on the table. So I had the table tell its story of how it was used by the family. The Table took months to assemble. Painting a picture of 60 years family life in three minutes rather than in an epic 20 or 30 verse song took a lot of thinking, writing and re-writing.
Ah, creative blocks! It is difficult to break through those. Sometimes I just let dry spells be dry and use the time to learn new songs, hone musical skills and stretch my musical abilities to a wider swatch of styles. Other times I force writing discipline and make myself write something—good or bad. Just as treasures are sometimes found in a pile of junk, snippets of good writing can pop up in the midst of disciplined, mediocre writing. As in any creative form, the difference between mediocrity and brilliance is often the culling eye—the ability to recognize what to keep and what to throw away. Two lines that rhyme do not automatically make poetry.
On top of your musical accomplishments, you are also passionate about math. While the connections between math and music are fundamental, what other connections do you see between math and creativity?
I saw the greatest connections between math and music when I was in graduate school where the math problems and proofs were so far removed from the concrete world that I had to let my mind focus and wander at the same time—to explore possibilities then choose an appropriate path back to a coherent solution. I think those are the critical components of creativity—the ability to flit around and follow spritely paths coupled with the discipline to bring coherence and continuity to those paths.
There are many connections between the structure of music and geometric sequences, trigonometry and arithmetic. One of the most obvious is the subdivision of measures and beats within the measures and how melody lines are laid out over those beats. That is a study in fractions. The frequency in which a vibration of a sound wave (a cosine wave) hits your ears creates the pitch of the sound. The frequencies of a chromatic scale form a what is known to mathematicians as a geometric series. Starting with any note, if you multiply its frequency by , about 1.06, you get the frequency of the next note in a chromatic scale. The same ratio, , relates the distance from a fret on a guitar to the bridge and the distance of the next fret to the bridge. (This is a simplification of a much more complicated topic, but will do for here.) The cosine waves of more than one note played at the same time create harmonious or dissonant sounds based on how the waves themselves meet up at particular points or don’t meet up at all. The notes of a major triad sound harmonious because their frequencies come together at regular intervals, giving our ear drums momentary rests from frequencies that are not together. When one of the notes is out of tune, the frequencies hit our ears without ever having that resolution. There is a mathematical reason why playing out of tune literally hurts our ears.
You have performed widely throughout the U.S., including appearances on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. How did this come about?
It came through a confluence of luck, timing and work. Rosy’s Bar and Grill was an anomaly in that we were all women, we all sang, we all played acoustic instruments and we collected songs—both contemporary and traditional—about women’s experiences. The first time we performed in Minneapolis, our sponsor set up an interview with Garrison Keillor on his local Tuesday morning radio show. Garrison was an autoharp player and he was intrigued that we had two autoharps in our group and were an “all girl” folk music band. We contacted Garrison Keillor when we were planning return performances in Minneapolis and played twice on the Prairie Home Companion—at that time a regional radio show—first at the World Theatre then at the outdoor park, fondly referred to as Lake Woebegone.
In 1978, Rosy’s toured in California, Oregon, Washington, Winnepeg, Minnesota and Ohio. Prior to booking the tour, we collected names of places to play from traveling musicians and anyone else who had suggestions. We sent out over a hundred letters and booked the tour. After that, we did some regional two to five day trips. After Rosy’s, I did some touring on my own to the west coast and took some regional trips with a group, The Waffles. Full time teaching and math-writing projects finally cut into travel time. Now I am beginning to travel again, playing mostly retirement homes and coffee houses in a 200 mile radius of Kansas City. In December 2014 and January 2015 I broadened my touring radius and played at retirement homes and coffee houses in Lubbock, Texas, Tucson and Phoenix. That is a fun way to be a snowbird!
Where and how do you record your music? What advice do you have for others who want to do the same?
The Rosy’s Bar and Grill record was recorded in Denver and produced by the folk music record label, Biscuit City Records out of Minneapolis. Biscuit City Records arranged recording time at a studio in Denver. For six days, we recorded from about 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., taking only meal breaks. The recording engineer then mixed the tracks and about a month later we got the final finished version. I enjoyed the recording process and a few years later bought a home recording system that would record 8-tracks on a reel-to-reel tape which I then mixed down to stereo or mono reel-to-reels. With my equipment, I recorded 1) a solo tape, The Way Back Home, 2) a tape with Woody Bauer (Dresner), Woody and Martha, Spontaneous Composition and 3) a project with The Waffles. Other recording projects in studios include 1) The Waffles, Specialty of the House, 2) Wit’s End on a 4-song heads-up tape—all tracks recorded at the same time with no overdubbing and 3) an EP with Checkered Past. I am now finishing two recording projects—a solo project of my own compositions and the other with Karen Hendricks, playing swing, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, country, cowboy, traditional and a few other styles of music.
My suggestion to anyone wanting to record is to find a way to do it however you can—whether with a sound engineer and professional equipment or with a cell phone. Work on the music so you can play it the best you are capable of with your skill level at the time. Use the recording process not only to produce a product but also to critique and hone your musical skills. If you are paying for studio time, make sure to have arrangements worked out ahead of time. Prior to the recording session, talk to other musicians about their recording process and strategies. Go into the studio warmed up and rested and expect the recording to take much longer than you planned.