And with a wave to us gawking kids, they were off!
Last month, Brian and I had the opportunity to play for over 9,000 students as part of the Dubuque Art Council’s “Artist in Residence” program. In 10 days we covered hundreds of miles as we crisscrossed three states and visited 33 schools. Perhaps you read some of the students’ comments on our Blog page. Kids do say the darnedest things. I found myself enjoying every outreach program we presented. The students were hungry for the opportunity to listen to live music and to see what a “real” musician looks like.
One of the magical parts of playing the schools would occur after the show. Usually a shy boy or girl would come up as the rest of the school was heading off to class or lunch and ask Brian and me about the bass or guitar. It would only take a glance and I knew the kid had that “look.” It was the look that comes over people when they’ve been hooked forever by the muse of music.
I remember how it went for me as a kid. It was the Robin Hood Players, a group of performers that came from either Rockford or Chicago. Over the intercom came the fuzzy, disembodied voice of Sister Dorothea: “Boys and girls, there will be an assembly program today at 2:00 in the auditorium. Best behavior please!”
I would count down the minutes until we all lined up and threaded our way down the dark halls of St. Mary’s School, with the smell of oil-polished wood filling our nostrils and the buzzing of dim overhead florescent lighting making us all look anemic. We thumped down the stairs which creaked in protest from each well-worn step as we headed to the assembly hall, teachers looking at us with the death stare if we dared talked or thumped a step too hard. Into the doors of the ancient auditorium and there it was, the stage set up with a minimum of scenery and whatever lighting could be coaxed from a light board that probably Edison himself installed.
Onto the stage strode the Robin Hood Players. And I was hooked. They acted, they sang, they improvised. I can hardly remember what happened on stage – something about a fairy tale – but I remember clearly how they were on stage. I could tell that those people, who I thought of as big adults but almost certainly were just out of college, loved performing. I remember laughing and feeling caught in some sort of spell. It was if I were seeing with my eyes one thing, while being told in my heart another thing. The show went on as my heart was saying, “You could do this too!”
Over the years, I would have that affirmation again and again, like the time Russian singers and dancers came to the Woodstock Opera House and performed their traditional music. This was prior to the opera house’s beautiful restoration, with lumpy seats and a huge hole in the peeling ceiling in which a pigeon observed the performance along with our sparse audience. And the Cossack (I imagined he must be a Cossack) took out his dagger and drove it into the stage floor on the last step of his dance. It quivered there as he held out his arms to the applause. I was seeing one thing with my eyes, but hearing another thing in my heart. “This is life, and this is joy. Pursue it.”
I remember these events so much more than the hours of television I watched. Of course I remember the Batman show, when Robin had his arm caught in a giant clam. And The Monkees, when Peter sold his soul to the Devil to play the harp, but found out he had the ability to make music in him all along. But that stuff was television. These performances were real, in my face and in the moment. I was nine years old and I was hooked.
We filed out of the auditorium after the Robin Hood players took their last bow and the old velvet curtains slowly strained their way to a sloppy, dusty close. I waited for the bus to come and take me back home. One of the Robin Hood players, a young man, came striding into Sr. Dorothea’s office. There she slowly wrote him a check and he thanked her profusely. She smiled back, her thin veil a bit offset on her gray head. I watched him then bound down the steps of our school and out to the waiting van. With a wave to us gawking kids, they were off. I was hooked.
Now, almost 40 years later, I am coming into the schools to play music for kids. These kids have so much more coming at them than I did. I grew up with Etch a Sketch as one of the more technically challenging devices. They have I-Pods, video games, a myriad of sports, Kindles, Facebook, Myspace and whatever else new that is happening on the computer. But here we were, with our hand-crafted instruments, our small sound system and the one-on-one chance of bringing a spark of interest in music to 9,000 kids. I know all 9,000 heard us. But one or two were looking with their eyes, listening with their hearts, and were hooked.
We need live music. Not the “go to the big concert” type either. We need the independent groups that come to the towns and come into the schools, the opera houses and the libraries, the groups that touch souls first. The groups that still play old standards and originals that will never be heard on the Grammys, musicians and artists who prove that joy wins out in the end. These people are still out there in spite of whatever commercial roadblocks and pitfalls have been thrown in our modern, recessive times. And they survive because other people have seen with their eyes and heard with their hearts and have made a financial effort to keep the arts alive.
Robin Hood took from the rich and gave to the poor. Or so the story goes. But the Robin Hood Players knowingly or unknowingly took their riches and gave them to me that fall day back in the early 70’s. Away they traveled, that merry band on their adventure to another school. Where they ended up, whether they still perform today, I will never know.
I, too, took some of their riches and the riches given to me by others over the years, seeing heroes on the stage and teachers who helped me play guitar and write songs. I happily spread those riches out to all the kids I could last month. There will come a day, when one of these kids will do the same, still following in the steps of Robin Hood and his merry band.
~ Marty McCormack, Switchback