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Archive for June, 2011

Last night, Ben and I went to Lexington High School for a presentation of “Songs of Ourselves:  A Celebration of Diversity”, the culmination of a unique poetry and music project.  Our friend, the talented poet and performance artist Regie O’Hare Gibson, had run the project,  along with his colleague, Robert Rivera – a gifted cellist and composer.  The two worked with freshmen at the high school on writing poetry and presenting it with music, both written and improvised.  Twenty-five pieces were presented in the 1.5-hour presentation, and a jazz combo and a classical ensemble were on stage to add live music to the performance.  The poems were read by Regie and two students.

The excellence of the writing was smashing, and the music was perfectly suited to the poems being read.  The student readers, rehearsed by Gibson, were also excellent, and all the people on stage were clearly excited by the work that had gone into the presentation, which was recorded by the local cable television station for rebroadcast.

What completely jazzed me (pun intended) were the topics presented through the writing:  memories of childhood and middle school, the importance of Starbucks (and its competition with Peets Coffee, the other major caffeine dispensary in Lexington center), elderly relatives and neighbors, visiting foreign countries, being in nature, what it’s like to live in a town like Lexington.  The whole program showed us what it’s like to be a teen today in this typical American town.  And it also showed us just how talented these teens are, guided by their teachers and Gibson.

Rivera’s work with the student musicians was equally impressive.  They offered music that enhanced each piece, and for the last piece, which Gibson had written from snippets of many of the poems the students had produced, all the musicians improvised with style and sensitivity.

I love what the poetry unit at the high school does.  My own daughter, Abby, wrote some amazing pieces during her poetry classes, including this one:

My friends and I
run along the grass
towards the rocky shore
We speak of the things
that happened that day:
all the excitements
and fun,
the games we had played.
The smell of smoke
drifts toward us,
familiar,
like an old friend.
We begin to hear laughing
and singing.

We crowd around the fire,
reaching for sticks and cramming
as many marshmallows onto them as will fit,
all of us as excited as a pen full of puppies.

Now for the fire:
some plunge the treat
deep into the flames, waiting
for the gooey mess
that is soon to come.
others linger by the edges of the fire,
wanting that delicious golden brown.

But the marshmallows all end up
the same
squished between chocolate
and graham crackers,
the perfect trio.
As I bite into this dessert,
bits of marshmallow
and graham cracker
stick to the corners of my mouth.

I laugh with my friends
as we walk back to our rooms,
already wanting to start the next day.
And to think that this moment
will only be
once
upon
a star.
(Abby, June – 2007)

Lexington, typical American town where the Revolution began, has become a pretty diverse American place, at least in some senses.  The town cultural composition is now twenty percent Asian, is home to people from many economic groups (although overwhelmingly middle and upper-middle class), offers many religious traditions, many cultural backgrounds.  And, yes, Lexington High School is a very, very good school – currently regarded as one of the top five public schools in the state.  The efforts of a herd of teachers and administrators caused “Songs of Ourselves” to come about, and the Lexington Education Foundation helped make it so.

Most of all, though, this project showed us, once again, what the arts in education can do.  Too often, these days, as very difficult decisions have to be made about what stays and what goes in city and town education budgets, the arts end up on the cutting room floor.  “Songs of Ourselves” offered us a look at what it means to be a teen today in this little town, and showed us what kind of gorgeous magic can be unlocked when you swirl together a few talented artists, a group of dedicated teachers and administrators, the funding support of an organization that wants to support the best in education, and a group of students willing to risk.  It’s delicious, and it’s worth our support as well.

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Tonight, I received word that my friend, Bill Clegg, had died.  Bill, who had been diagnosed with a bile duct tumor about eighteen months ago, lived longer than he had expected, and worked to make the most of all the time he had.  He loved his biological and extended family, music, travel, Star Island, his friends, the arts.

Bill was jokingly known, to some of his friends, as “The Mayor of Star Island” during the time when he was President of the Star Island Corporation.  He understood what a small, inbred ‘town’ Star was, and viewed his role as President as one akin to being the Mayor of a small village:  keep the peace, help move the economy in productive ways, perform good works to advance the position of the town, shake hands with visitors and newcomers, honor the history of the community.

He was a very, very good Mayor, and — in my opinion — helped to save Star Island from possible bankruptcy during his Presidency, through his dogged work, determination, and good management skills.  All of us who visit Star for a day, a week, or a lifetime should take a moment to say a small word of thanks to Bill for helping to ensure that the place has remained open and available for us to visit:  it was not a given that this would be so.

Bill kept his eye on the essential values of small communities, reminding others of those key values.  He treasured his friends and shared with us his wit and his considerable musical skill, which he happily shared with his daughter, Ellen, and his adopted son, Theo. No one present at the All Star One conference last year will easily forget Bill playing piano to accompany Theo’s smashing vocal offerings, or performing a remarkable duet with Ellen — he on piano, she on steel drum.  I think we all knew that it might be our last time watching and listening to Bill perform, and he — and we — were determined to make the most of it.

Bill had the ability to focus in on a problem and wrestle it to the ground, analyzing all sides of an issue until he understood it and had some sense that you, too, had a grasp of all the pro’s and con’s.  I used to joke that it was simply not possible to have less than a thirty minute conversation with him, because talking meant exploring every detail of a subject and considering every potential result.  But the thirty minutes were always well spent, and I never ended a conversation without feeling that I had learned something during the course of it.

Bill Clegg had an easy laugh, a sharp wit, a gentle hand, and a loving heart.  He faced the end of his life with bravery and spirit, modeling all that songwriter Bob Franke lifted up when he wrote in his song, “Thanksgiving Eve”:

“…What can you do with your days but work & hope
Let your dreams bind your work to your play
What can you do with each moment of your life
But love til you’ve loved it away
Love til you’ve loved it away.”

I was honored to call him friend, mentor, advisor, confidant.  And there is a hole in my heart that will never be filled, from his passing.

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Last week, I performed in a one-night-only show that I couldn’t wait to do.  It’s a show that unites Revels, Inc., the remarkable dance-music-theatre organization that brings the arts and education together in wonderful ways, with the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA — the school that educated Annie Sullivan and later, Helen Keller.  Revels and Perkins have had a close relationship for eleven years.  That relationship extends to the Revels Music Director, George Emlen, teaching the Perkins students many pieces from the Revels repertoire, focused on the spring, May Day, and (in some years) the sea.  Education director Michelle Roderick has also worked with the students, showing them what a sword dance ‘feels’ like, how May Day is celebrated in the British Isles, and more.

Into this, the Revels Repertory Company performers come (including me), to partner with Perkins students and sing traditional songs including “The Helston Furry,” “The Padstow May Song,” the medieval “Miri it Is,” “Mairi’s Wedding,” and more.  We are accompanied by members of our children’s company, dancing and singing and making merry (miri) through the aisles of the auditorium.  David Coffin, the mainstay of the Christmas Revels productions, is there to play his recorder and lead the audience in several pieces.  But the Perkins students are the real stars of this show.

All of them are blind or partially sighted.  A number have hearing loss or other challenges as well.  They have all worked hard to learn the music for this show, and they are excited to be performing with us.  Carefully we teach our partners how to perform the Circassian Circle Dance, counting out the beats for them and calling the steps.  We narrate what’s happening on stage, what’s coming next in the show, where we have to move, how many steps to walk down to move from stage to floor level.  It takes awareness and sensitivity and skills one doesn’t ordinarily call on to make everything work.

Perkins has existed for over 175 years.  With Samuel Gridley Howe as one of the school’s guiding lights and Charles Dickens as one of its champions, the institution has a remarkable history and offers services that now reach around the globe, serving blind, deaf-blind, and visually challenged individuals.  The Perkins slogan is, “All we see are possibilities.”  When I work with the Perkins students, so many of those possibilities become clear, and they overtake the challenges.  These students are enthusiastic, willing, and excited to be involved with Revels.

Too often we tend to think about individuals with physical or emotional challenges as disabled, lacking the ability to participate.  But in this venture between Revels and Perkins, it becomes clear that the students really are differently abled…and it’s up to us to find the best ways to unlock the potential that’s there.

For me, this is a huge gift, an opportunity to stretch in different ways, share my joy of the performing arts with someone new.  And it’s hard to beat the pleasure of performing in front of an audience of excited Perkins students, faculty, and most of all, parents, weeping with joy as they watch their children doing things they never believed were possible.  More than this, the students themselves find that they can do things they were yearning to attempt.  One student, John Castillo, has an absolutely first-rate baritone voice and is a gifted percussionist.  Another is a smashing violinist.  Still another plays the accordion with great ease and ability.

The Revels partnership, which brings the remarkable directing skills of Artistic Director Patrick Swanson to the Perkins productions along with Emlin’s musical talents, exposes the Perkins students to music and theatre in energizing, thrilling form.

I walked away from the evening grateful for the work of my partner, Marta, and thrilled to have had a chance to work with the Perkins students and faculty members.  And all around, I have to agree that — with this partnership — there’s nothing but possibility for all who helped this one-night-only production get onstage.

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