Music Performances – Magic at Any School
I dreamed about my high school last night, the boarding arts high school Interlochen Arts Academy. In the dream, I was on campus as my current self, spending six months studying, living in my old dorm named Mozart-Beethoven, arranging bookshelves with my new roommate. As I exited the cinder block dorm, ambling through pine woods to the lake, I thought, “Wow, this time I’m really here. I’m not dreaming. I’m finally truly back. I’ll go to a concert tonight after I practice, then work on my poem for class tomorrow. This time, finally, I’m not just dreaming about it.”
Rewind twelve hours. I was sitting in the auditorium at Holyoke Community College, surrounded by proud parents at the spring concert of the Berkshire Hills Music Academy. I’ve written about the school and their performances before. I have described these young adults whose disabilities affect their movements, speech and social interactions and who will likely need some degree of assistance throughout their lives.
I was excited to see my former students and their families. Yet as the concert got underway, I felt unease. These young adults were not behind the safe doors of a classroom. Their disabilities were right up on stage with them. Some musicians stared at the floor through their songs, never looking up. What were they thinking about? A few talked too loudly as they set up, or they stared at the audience. Some musicians wore headphones because the noise of the event was overwhelming. I worried that some students with affected gaits would trip on the microphone cords. They all seemed so vulnerable. Suddenly the arts seemed dangerous, so very public.
After about three songs, I started noticing familiar magical moments, like the singer who was absolutely on beat and on pitch, no matter what else was going on. Or another, looking too cool in sunglasses, who performed a familiar song with a brilliant twist – “Hit me with your best shot,” in bone dry delivery. There was the student who started in a range too low for him, then as the pitches rose, his tenor voice opened and expression poured out. Like all concerts this was a moment when the critic in me stopped and just lived the music.
Also, like all concerts, there were pieces that lacked magic. That’s okay. Completely normal. The performers were still giving it everything they had. Maybe they spoke to someone else. Every audience member brings something unique to the event, like each performer.
When students weren’t performing, they sat in the audience along the right wall. The second half opened with a small group singing, “If you’re goin’ through hell.” The right side of the auditorium exploded in motion. Students head banged, snickered at the word “hell,” and screamed their appreciation as the rest of us adults applauded. A few songs later, “Dance to the music” seemed like a religious revival as the students in the audience jumped up and down, waving their heads and arms, while the singer leaped around the stage and the drummer tossed his sticks in the air. The magic of the concert wasn’t the parents who were recording it on tablets and phones. It was students sharing this moment with each other.
BHMA students are around music all the time – playing it and listening to it with each other. In lessons, classes, and weekly Friday concerts, music is how they shout and cry about themselves and the world. BHMA is housed in a single manor. Students literally live, learn, and perform under one roof. Their rock-star cheers at this concert for each other were the result of months of deep musical expressions and connections.
When I was in ninth grade my grandparents visited Interlochen and accompanied me to my classes. They were amazed at how supportive we were as we critiqued each other’s poetry. (Our teacher was the poet and author Jack Driscoll.) Four years later, my parents were struck how each graduating senior was cheered loudly by all classmates as her/his name was read. All 200 of us had shared an experience that made each student worthy of such joyful noise.
There were musical differences among us just as there are at BHMA – I play Brahms sonatas in my bedroom now, while my classmates play Brahms symphonies in the Cleveland Orchestra. But in school, we all practiced hard, and each day we walked onto the stage with our faults, weaknesses, and intellectual holes in full display. We stared too much, we looked at the floor, real or psychological, and we certainly made social gaffs. But we did it together as we expressed our own deep humanity through the music. On some level, we loved each other as we witnessed and were witnessed. Like the BHMA student sang yesterday,“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
This morning, I awoke. Shoot, I was so sure that I was at Interlochen this time. Alas, no lake, no pine trees, no “land of the muse divine.”
But the muses flew around that auditorium in Western Mass yesterday, conjured by musicians who appear to be so different from other musicians in my life.
Those muses laugh, playing tricks on me in my dreams, because they know that we humans are all so very very much alike.
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