PSO cellist Adam Liu and I were recently invited to do a 45-minute presentation for the first Woodlands Foundation Notes from the Heart Music Camp for adults over 21. Adam plays the erhu as well as the cello, and I play violin and viola, so between us we had the potential to provide a wide range of sounds and styles. As usual I brought percussion instruments so that we could have an audience-provided rhythm section as needed! And I knew the campers were very willing to sing on request.
I found the most challenging part of playing for a group with highly individual abilities was designing a program that could be engaging and inclusive on multiple levels. I knew that the music selections needed to be relatively short and that we would need to shift gears a few times. For me the key to engagement was to ask the audience lots of questions.
So this is how our program unfolded:
Adam and I began by holding up and introducing the instruments. In addition to the violin and viola, I showed them a Nepali violin, the sarangi, a four-stringed instrument unfamiliar to everybody, with carvings of a bird and an elephant god on the back. This provided an interesting contrast to the western violin and the erhu.
I also showed them an ocean drum. While I played it, we used the sound to imagine being by the water, and then we used our voices to create the whooshing sound of waves coming in to shore.
Adam, playing cello, gave the campers some drone notes to sing as I played a bagpipe version of “Auld Lang Syne” on the violin. We asked, “Does anybody recognize this piece? Do you know the words?” With their participation, they could hear how we sounded like bagpipes. Adam and I then played a short bagpipe version of “The Water is Wide.” One of the campers identified the piece and proceeded to sing the words with a beautiful, pure sound, to the applause and cheers of everybody.
I followed that with a local fiddle version of “Drowsy Maggie.” We added some audience percussion when I introduced and played the scordatura Appalachian tune “Dry and Dusty” and a few American folk dance tunes. One of the participants was able to identify every key we played in.
To change the pace, Adam introduced and played a Chinese melody on the erhu, followed by a cello piece from a Bach suite.
We switched to viola and cello and played five Romanian Folk Dances by Bartók. After each dance I asked “What title would you give this piece?” The participants’ responses were astoundingly creative.
And finally we switched to playing local sports songs: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and the “Pennsylvania (Steelers) Polka.” Everybody sang, played percussion, danced, or waved “terrible towels.”
To thank the participants for all the wonderful ideas and positive energy they contributed to the event, we finished with “Simple Gifts.” The song is familiar, and they could still play their percussion to a quieter, slower beat. One of the campers accompanied us beautifully on the madal, an instrument he had never played before.
I leave the Woodlands inspired and humbled by the participants’ brilliance, enthusiasm, and creativity, and I leave you with a video of the music we shared: