Storytelling, Friendship, & Music

November 26, 2018

by Marji Gere

Hello and Happy Thanksgiving!

I have been asked by a few fellow teaching artists to write a description of a project I am co-leading as part of the Around Hear chamber music series and education program. It is a long story, but if you are interested in work that connects arts education, literacy, immigration, new music, and poetry, then maybe you’ll stick with me.

First, the vitals: there is going to be a special, one-time-only event on December 8th, at 2pm, at the Mystic Activity Center (530 Mystic Ave, Somerville: the Somerville Housing Authority community center that is the site of nearly all Around Hear’s free artistic programming). Around Hear co-director and pianist-composer Dan Sedgwick, Tamara Plummer (spoken word artist and bassoonist) and I have curated a uniquely dramatic performance that includes bassoon duos, a world premiere for spoken word, violin, and piano (created and performed by us!), Dvorak’s "Dumky" trio, and personal stories from US immigrants from Brazil, Algeria, Mexico, Bangladesh, and Haiti. Tamara, Dan and I will be joined by Providence-based cellist Adrienne Taylor; Nisreen Nor, a bassoonist from NYC; and half a dozen writer-orators from The Welcome Project, an organization that builds the collective power of immigrants to participate in and shape community decisions. This project is funded through a Live Arts Boston grant from The Boston Foundation.


Before I describe our process, I’d like to tell you the story of Tamara, Dan and me. The three of us met at the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music in Nelson, New Hampshire in the year 2000. Though we didn’t live in the same place, over many summers we (along with many other dear friends from around the world) became like family, as is wont to happen at these chamber music camps. We played music together and worked side-by-side as counselors and camp directors. We internalized and propagated Apple Hill’s “Playing for Peace” mission, and the camp’s informal motto: “There is no ‘they’, only ‘we.’” Dan and I, married in 2008, collaborate regularly as a piano-violin duo, co-directors of Around Hear, and on numerous other projects.

A creative collaboration with Tamara materialized in the fall of 2015, when I was doing some personal research on the role of the bicycle in the women’s liberation movement. Digging around the Internet, looking for primary sources on bloomers (the controversial pants-like garment worn by practical turn-of-the-century female cyclists), I discovered a newspaper article from 1895 about a black female cyclist in Alabama who was subjected to a bizarre act of sexism and racism. After drafting some writing in response to this article, I asked Tamara for her thoughts. Tamara responded with a poem, full and alive with her beautiful, energetic, humane language. Tamara and I wrote back and forth until we had a finished version of the poem. Dan composed music—at times dissonant and brittle, then suddenly bright and ephemeral—for violin and piano to accompany a spoken word version of the poem. We performed the resulting piece, “Ride: For a Lady Wheeler,” at concerts in Marlborough and Keene, NH and Brookline and Somerville, MA over the course of 2015 and 2016. Hear a recording and flip through an accompanying digital chapbook here (scroll down to bird-in-flight image and you have arrived).

In 2017, we collaborated on Soldier’s Tales, a reworking of Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat. Inspired by interviews with US veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and research on government protocols, Tamara wrote a new script for Stravinsky’s dramatic chamber music work, replacing the intended Faustian Russian folk tale with vignettes from a fictional, contemporary American scene: a summer picnic honoring veterans of war and their families. This piece was performed at the Sonad Glen Brook Workshop on August 24th, 2017, with Eric Thomas, clarinetist/actor; Dan Sedgwick, pianist/actor; Marji Gere, violinist/actor; Stamos Martin, cellist; Joy Flemming, bassoonist; and Tamara Plummer and John Steinmetz as the lead actor-narrators.


Our current project as a trio commenced during a creative retreat this summer at Avaloch Farm Music Institute in Boscowen, NH. We had received a grant from The Boston Foundation to create a new work that explored journeys of uprooting, adapting and belonging experienced by immigrants and their children. Toward this goal, Tamara composed two poems: companion reflections on her relationship with her mother, with her Caribbean American neighborhood of Flatbush, Brooklyn, and with her mother's home country, Jamaica. Over the course of summer and fall 2018, Dan took these poems and composed vivid, nuanced music (for violin and piano) that supports, challenges, and magnifies Tamara’s text. During this creative process, I am serving as sounding board, liaison, thesaurus wielder, and, of course, violinist.

This time, however, I am also serving as lead designer and organizer of a substantial community engagement component. Alongside the premiere performance of this new work by and for our trio, Dan, Tamara and I will present readings by several writers who participated in an intensive storytelling and writing workshop we led on November 17th, 2018. The featured writers have a few things in common: namely they live in or near Somerville, they are immigrants to the US, and are affiliates of The Welcome Project: adult English language learners, bilingual teenagers from the Liaison Interpreters Program of Somerville, and an organizational intern from Tufts University. They signed up for our day-long workshop for a variety of reasons: some expressed a desire to practice English conversation, some were eager to meet new friends, many voiced an interest in creative writing, public speaking, or music. Eleven people between the ages of 16 and 70 cleared their Saturday to join Dan, Tamara and me for a day of togetherness and creative, expressive exploration, which I will describe below.

Gathering at the Mystic Activity Center on the morning on November 17th, we started with coffee, pastries, and conversation, and Tamara gave a warm, inclusive introductory speech that she has adopted from her professional work as Asset Map Coordinator with Episcopal Relief and Development. As attendees rolled in, we worked our way into the day’s sequence of activities, which is based on The Performance Cycle, a pedagogical framework developed by two educators I admire very much: Kurt Wootton and Eileen Landay of the Arts Literacy Project. These two, with their ever-evolving cohort of luminous educators from around the world, “create powerful learning experiences that have the capacity to transform participants’ understanding and actions.” The Performance Cycle is a reflection of Wootton and Landay’s appreciation of the existence and value of multi-literacies and social dynamics in learning (i.e. acknowledging and using other art forms such as music, visual art, and theater in literacy-based educational contexts, and moving learners through large group, small group, and individual work situations to maximize relational possibilities). It is also a demonstration of their understanding of the role of educator-facilitator as inspiring artistic director and the roles of learner-participants as apt, creative ensemble performers. I experienced Wootton and Landay’s work for the first time in 2007 as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and have been following them ever since—including to the Habla Teacher Institute in Mérida, Mexico in July 2015 and the New England Arts for Literacy intensive training at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, July 2016. If you are interested in learning more about the Arts Literacy Project, I recommend reading Wootton and Landay’s book A Reason to Read: Linking Literacy and the Arts. If you are on a time-sensitive mission to discover some great activities for community-building, reading, writing, and performance, go to and head directly to The Handbook. Or, to learn about how Arts Literacy Project inspired our workshop, read on!


After Tamara’s introduction, Dan went to the piano and the rest of us got on our feet and moved to the open part of the room. Dan began to play a tune by South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, and Tamara and I encouraged everyone to make a "human atom" by walking around the open space in random patterns, covering as much floor with their tracks as possible, being mindful of others’ paths as they went. In other settings I have seen this activity turn into a regimented circle swim around the edge of the room, but our group was a decidedly non-linear bunch; with little instruction, we created myriad geometries; our paths were irregular, intersecting, complementary. We moved with confidence, as if we were a well-rehearsed dance ensemble. At a musical pause, I gave the instruction to make eye contact and share smiles during the next round (though that instruction was unnecessary—this was a smiley bunch!). The final round we stopped, paired up, and had quick conversations on the topic of “favorite food.” Starting with movement, music, and conversation—through a Human Atom or other “Building Community” activities from The Performance Cycle—is a physically and socially energizing way to kick off a gathering, especially one that includes folks who do not know each other.


We went directly from the Human Atom into a choral reading activity. We stood in a circle and Tamara called out short lines from “Papaya Tree” by Thanhha Lai. The rest of us called back, imitating Tamara’s volume, prosody, and gesture. Through this activity, we were practicing sending our voices fully out into the world; we were practicing pronunciation; we were practicing listening and ensemble performance. Check out a lesson plan for this and other "Entering Text" activities. The source text of the poem, Inside Out and Back Again, is a memoir, told as a novel-in-verse, of the author’s family’s life in Vietnam, their subsequent flight from Vietnam to the US during the Fall of Saigon, and their life as immigrants in a small Alabama town. Two poems from this book were included in our morning activities, to serve as invitation into the world of poetry and as inspiration for our creative writing that would happen later in the day. (Also, everyone received a copy of the book as a parting gift.)


Next, we moved into a large-group poetry interpretation exercise. I handed a slip of paper to each participant, each containing a line from the first poem in Lai’s book, and a number from 1-11 in the corner (corresponding to the lines’ places in the poem). The task was for each of us to practice dramatizing our lines individually (seeking help with definitions and pronunciations as necessary). When everyone was ready, we got in a circle and shared performances of our lines, in order. Meaning emerged. Context was revealed. Personalities shone. There were surprises: participants discovered through this activity that the first eight lines of the poem are happy-go-lucky, and the ninth, tenth and eleventh are suddenly dark and angry. They met Hà, the narrator, a defiant young girl. Through their collaborative performance, Hà taught them about Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, and the complicated family dynamics that figure during that holiday (and every day). As with the call and response activity, we practiced ensemble performance, and we learned who were the uninhibited actors in our group. Those people inspired the rest of us to let loose. It was amazing. This was one of my favorite moments of the whole day.


Following the three high-energy, social, drama-based activities, we paused to refill our coffee cups and plates and gathered around a conference table. Dan handed out copies of the full poem we had just performed. The assignment was to read silently, individually, and each take a moment to choose what we felt was the most important word or phrase in the poem. Following ten minutes of thoughtful, quiet reading, we took turns sharing our selections and why we chose them. In our group, some of us chose sentences that provided information about the narrator’s personality or revealed something about a family relationship. Some chose sentences that taught the meanings and rituals of Tết. There was very little overlap in our selections. This activity gives a peek into what matters to fellow readers, how perspective informs choice. It also provides a tangible reminder that there are many, many ways to read a poem. Check out a lesson plan for this and other "Comprehending Text" activities.


Before lunch, I led a bout of “rapid brainstorming”, during which we each made personal lists of important foods, music, tasks and routines, objects, people, rituals, and ceremonies in our lives. These lists were to serve as fodder for storytelling and creative writing work, but not until after a party-like lunchtime, which was a delicious meze feast from Pita, a Moroccan take-out shop in Inman Square, Cambridge.


After lunch, Tamara had everyone back on their feet, in constantly shifting pairs, swapping two-minute-long “microstories” on the brainstormed topics above. One adult language learner participant said, “It was all going so fast, I forgot to be nervous about my English!” This was a wonderful time for us to get to know each other better; it was also a good way to start focusing in on our personal stories, and gearing up to do some creative writing on choice topics.

You can find lesson plans for these and other "Creating Text" activities here.


Seizing the energy generated during this fast-paced, face-to-face storytelling time, the participants and Tamara retreated to the conference table to address these writing prompts: free write on one item from your brainstorm, or write a poem, each line beginning with “I Come From…” filled in with items from your list (i.e. I come from my papaya tree/I come from Tết/I come from a bossy brother/I come from fish sauce/I come from war). While the writers worked, Dan turned back into a pianist, I turned into a violinist, and we welcomed Adrienne Taylor, a Providence-based cellist who had joined us after lunch. The three of us played movements from Dvorak’s "Dumky" trio—sweet, nostalgic, expressive, sincere music that seemed to really hit the spot for the writers, and will be shared again at the Dec. 8th performance. Trina, a Welcome Project intern from Bangladesh, was incredibly excited; she is a cellist and her favorite musical experience of all time was playing Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony with her youth orchestra.


Final exercise: we asked everyone to get on their feet once more, and stand at the edge of the room, with their writing, a hard surface, and a writing utensil in hand. We invited them to practice reading their work aloud as they walked from one end of the room to the other and back. We challenged the prolific writers to boil down their writing to a point where they could finish reading by the time they made the round trip. We encouraged those with pithier writing styles to add more description, more action, more of whatever seemed true to them and had them talking from wall to wall. This activity is very fun to experience and witness. The simultaneous reading sounds like a beehive; the communal pacing creates a unique, inspiring co-working vibe. Find a lesson plan for this and other "Rehearsing/Revising Text" activities.


The day was rapidly coming to an end, so we welcomed everyone to share all or some of their works in progress. Dan set up a microphone; everyone else set up chairs in a semi-circle. One by one, nearly everyone arose to share. Some had written stylized poetry, with rhyme and rhythm. Some wrote about how much they loved the workshop, and what it meant for them to participate. Some went off-script and shared deeply personal, emotional stories. Trina, the cellist, had spent the free writing time drawing the musicians, so she shared a poem she had written for her grandfather at another time. Dan and Tamara and I shared an excerpt from “Rice and Peas”, our new work, which we had begun rehearsing just the day before. During this final show-and- tell, it became clear: we had created a safe space for people to be open and authentic, to express themselves in ways that felt natural. Over the course of four hours, we had created a community. It was hard to say goodbye. We will gather again on December 8th, some to perform, some as supportive audience members, all of us as friends. We hope you’ll join us.

Until then, I’m communicating with performing writers to help them hone their writing and dramatic reading. In talking to them, I’m learning that there is a desire for more opportunities, such as this workshop, for community building, language practice, and creative expression. Dan, Tamara, and I want to provide this, and The Welcome Project is the ideal partner organization for such an enterprise. I will be looking into ways to continue and sustain Arts Literacy Project-inspired workshops in connection with our existing Around Hear music education and performance programming. If you are interested in joining in on the fun, helping, or contributing, please get in touch!