By Degrees


"You can learn to live with anything [no matter how horrible it is] when it happens by degrees."

Thank you, Mark Erelli, for allowing me to post your moving letter that, for me, captures the heart and soul of educating: supporting and celebrating students who care, take risks, make mistakes, show courage, and come out stronger. And thank you for your moving song, "By Degrees."


Last night [3/16/16], students at the Burr & Burton school in Manchester VT performed a 90 minute-long medley of highlighting musical works of social change. I am deeply honored that my song “By Degrees” was featured alongside works by Bob Dylan, John Lennon and many other influential artists and composers. I can’t imagine how hard the student orchestra and singers rehearsed for the performance, which was an intricate feat of endurance. It was streamed live, but I was on the road and missed the show (you can see my song here at 01:21:00:  After the fact, I learned that the student who sang my song had made a few mistakes during his performance, and was working through some tough emotions about his performance. I don’t know the student’s name, but I wanted to reach out to him with this open letter:

Dear G______,

I want you to know that I saw a recording of the show and that as a writer there is no higher compliment than having others give voice to your songs. It doesn’t matter who sings it, it could be an artist of some renown in a big hall or a weekend warrior belting it for disinterested patrons at a barroom open mic. It’s an act of tribute for which I am grateful.

I heard through the grapevine that you might be working through some tough emotions in the wake of your performance. I know—some verses of the song were repeated, others not sung at all—but I want you to know that none of that really matters. I’ve done this professionally for 17 years and I still forget words to my own songs. I make mistakes. All. The. Time. Mistakes are funny: they emphasize what we all have in common, embodying all that makes us human, but they also have a strange way of emphasizing what makes us unique. Music biographies are littered with stories of musicians’ limitations that evolved into their personal style, oft-copied by future generations. This won’t be the last mistake you make—and not your biggest by a long-shot—but I hope you can learn to embrace the fact that such things are a normal part of how we grow, what makes us “us,” and most importantly, what makes you “you.”

It takes an incredible amount of courage to perform, particularly at this point in your life. When you step onstage, you ostensibly hope to blow the audience away with your brilliance and charisma. What you are actually doing is making a public declaration that you care about something, something you love so much that you are compelled to share it with others. As a younger person, and sometimes even as adult, it’s often not cool to care, to love so publicly. A performer’s vulnerability often makes others uncomfortable. I hope your friends and colleagues applaud your efforts, but if anyone ever gives you grief about your mistakes, it’s only because your bravery reminds them of what they might not be courageous enough to do.

You stood up there, surrounded by so many other talented peers, in front of an audience of friends, relatives and witnesses, and for 90 minutes you showed them you cared—about art, social change and so much more.  That kind of courage is just one of the many ways you may someday change the world. I’m not talking of some widespread revolution. Maybe you only change the heart of a few people who witness your art, but never underestimate the power of that. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m not ashamed to admit that your performance brought me to tears, and I can’t thank you enough for caring.

With respect, Mark Erelli