Posts for:  March 2015

Where Music Shines Bright

Daniel with his working Braille copy of the Chopin Etudes from the Lighthouse Music School

I’ve taught many wonderful students over the years, but one in particular stands out — Daniel Gillen, who is a physics major at Haverford College, and a lyrical pianist with a strong artistic voice. That Daniel has been blind since infancy doesn’t seem to hinder him much. Part of his confidence stems from the remarkable education he’s received from a place he often speaks about, the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School at the Lighthouse Guild in New York City.

Mignon Gillen, Daniel’s mom, a dancer and choreographer, invited me to visit the school when I was in Manhattan recently. We met in the sunny lobby of the Lighthouse Guild Headquarters on East 59th Street, where people were hurrying in from the wind and cold. Designed by Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, the building has an open feel that seems to draw people in and up, with purpose. Here a person who is visually impaired can receive eye care, vision rehabilitation, academic and practical training. At first glance, the only clue that patrons here might have special needs are the elevator buttons, which are large and colorful. Mignon and I rode up to the fourth floor music school. There we were welcomed by Executive Director Dr. Leslie Jones; Dr. Lisa Johnson, the director of administration, and Daniel’s longtime piano teacher and Director of Musical Studies, Dr. Dalia Sakas.

For the next hour or so, I had a chance to absorb a world of music within this small space, where every square inch is needed; besides desks for staff and Leslie’s office, there are teaching studios for individual music instruction, and a library that houses an extensive collection of large-print and Braille music scores. Because the school accommodates many types of vision loss, it makes available many types of scores. Dalia showed me a music score in which a single measure of very large noteheads took up an entire 8.5 X 11 page. “That’s for an 80-year-old woman with macular degeneration who wanted to play the piano again.”

When a student needs a piece of music that doesn’t exist in the library, there are a few options: a request to the Library of Congress, a commission to Dancing Dots, a company in Pennyslvania that specializes in creating scores for the visually impaired. Or, as Dalia told me, “I make it.”

If needed, Dalia can generate print-on-demand large-print or Braille music scores with computer software on-site. (Keep in mind that Braille music must be learned at a relatively young age, when the fingertips are sensitive enough to feel the tiny raised dots that comprise the system of notation.) Now Lighthouse students are creating their own scores. One room of the school is devoted to music technology, with a MIDI keyboard/computer lab, and the capacity to teach MIDI sequencing, recording, as well as notation programs such as Finale, Sibelius, Lime Light (to produce large-print scores) and Goodfeel (to produce Braille scores).

Specialization for vision loss aside, what the Music School at the Lighthouse Guild offers its students, who range in age from pre-school to ninety, is a multi-faceted music education. They can study theory, ear-training, and solfege, receive private instrumental lessons, and participate in vocal ensemble, jazz improv, pop/rock ensemble, choir (directed by Dalia) and dance. Students perform in recitals, performathons, and in an annual concert co-produced with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a collaboration that has successfully run for eighteen years. Not long ago, in an extraordinary effort, the school put on a professionally staged version of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde,” which received high praise from Anthony Tomassini in the New York Times, who only lamented that there hadn’t been enough funding for a longer run.

The staff and teachers at the Lighthouse Guild Music School work with the kind of devotion and creativity that can’t be measured in hours or dollars. They’ve built a model that is both unique and dynamic, and believe the community music school is where the future of music will thrive. To get the message out, they’ve invited music education majors from local universities to serve as interns at the school. They also give talks to share their vision. Anyone who meets Dalia and Leslie will realize that the future of music is bright. Their enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit reflect their joy in music-making, and their determination to give their students a rich, undimmed future.

An inspiring day with extraordinary women Leslie Jones (left) and Dalia Sakas (right)

First Lady of Soul

Bettye LaVette and her band at World Cafe Live in the city that finally loves her, Philadelphia

On a frigid January day in 2009,  my siblings and their kids traveled from around the country to meet in Washington, D.C. for Barack Obama’s historic first Inaugural Celebration. The only hotel we could find was several miles away from the furthest D.C. Metro stop, way out in Virginia, but part of the magic of the day was boarding the empty train and being joined by an accumulating mass of bundled-up, happy people at each station, until finally we were part of a peace-able, joyous throng of 400,000 strong at the Washington Mall, waiting to hear a concert.

As a musician, I was skeptical that sound could be transmitted in any sort of acceptable way from Jumbotrons placed around the grounds. But the concert was great. Among the star-studded line-up (Herbie, Stevie, Beyoncé, Renée Fleming) the one performer who embodied power, intensity, and burn-in-your-brain “remember this” was the one performer I had never heard of. Bettye LaVette was that unique.

So when I heard she was coming to our genre-busting Philadelphia venue World Café Live, Tom and I got tickets right away for her show last week. We waited in anticipation while her band of young guys (Darryl Pierce, drums, James Simonson, bass, Brett Lucas, guitar) vamped for her entrance. Her keyboard player and music director Alan Hill intoned, “Please welcome the First Lady of Soul — Ms. Bettye Lavette,” and Ms. LaVette, almost 70, wisp-thin and petite, strode onstage in 3-inch heels and a sleeveless black jumpsuit.

She’s been singing, for long periods unnoticed, since the early 1960′s, when she came out with her first hit single, “My Man –He’s a Lovin’ Man.” She explained that the suggestive song wasn’t what the mainstream expected from a 16-year-old, especially not Dick Clark, who didn’t book her. “Oh, I wanted to be on American Bandstand in the worst way. All my friends were going on, but they were doing things like –” and she demonstrated a teenybopper, cutesy kick.

Ms. LaVette is anti-cutesy, anti-sweet, anti-fake. There is no sugar-coating or lying to herself or anyone else in song or word. For the show, she sang all the tracks from her new CD “Worthy.” “This is what I do — I go on the road when a new CD comes out — not that there have been that many,” she added with customary candor and a smile.

Her smart, bitter take on tunes by Bob Dylan (“Unbelievable”) and the Stones (“Complicated”) rendered their provenance unrecognizable by the audience, when she quizzed us on who we thought had written them. “C’mon, white people!” she chastised us.

Yet, she was gracious too, thanking her musicians and the sound engineers at World Cafe Live for their excellent, perfectly mic’ed acoustic.

For over an hour, Bettye LaVette stabbed us with raw, unfiltered emotion — what she delivers is not just singing, but cajoling, growling, pleading, moaning, crying. Her show culminated in a heart-wrenching rendition of her hit “Let Me Down Easy.” Rarely have I witnessed such bare vulnerability — onstage or off.  I’ll remember it forever, and tell my students today and in the future — that’s the kind of caring you aim for. For now, Bettye LaVette is certainly “worthy” of her title “First Lady of Soul.”