This was one of the most curious gigs I’ve had in a while. I work with a Bucks Co. arts organization that takes teaching artists like myself into schools in that area. They asked if I would donate my time for an outreach collaboration with Urban Promise, a group making spaces for inner city kids (mostly black, today) to have a summer camp experience. I was glad to do it.
The woman booking the event said that I could do two sets/workshops at the site, a large Episcopal Church in Trenton. She said I would be playing in the Crypt. I said that’s cool.
So I arrived on site and was escorted to the Crypt in the sub basement, a large multi-arched marble room with slate floors and a nice activity space in front of me. (Behind me was some large wooden sanctified space). I got the older kids first (10 – 13 yr. olds) This would be the tough one.
And it was. I know what to expect. There’s a chaos factor, cultural differences, unfamiliarity with a guy and an acoustic guitar, etc. etc. But, I launch into what I do best, get them to vocalize, move, react and interact. I then have to appeal to the counsellors to join in, as well. It all happened and turned out great. But there was a truly Zen moment that connected us pretty deeply, and it happened in the first song.
I started out with I Like Peanut Butter, and even though it lands pretty honky on their ears, it does push itself musically and has strong vocal response. We did the chorus and ended on the ‘Woo!’. I stopped the song and said, “Did you hear that echo?” It was unlike anything I had heard.
At this point, I decided to explore this moment, to see where we can go together. I had no idea, but trusted my creative muse to find out. I said that if we could come together, we could try this echo chamber together. We tried several times, with kids doing it at different times, screwing with it and me, and, towards the end, not being able to control their laughter. So, we worked through it, and even some of the students told their out-of-line friends to cool it. Then we did it: one, two, three, wooo…ooo. ooo. ooo…. There was a collective moment that was palpable. The kids, the counsellors, the director and myself linked.
It was still a hard row to hoe, but the counselors pitched in, almost all of kids got it, and we played.
The second and younger group were easier to appeal to and to control, but I also explored the Crypt’s echo, expanding on having several kids come up to do the count (take charge of the situation) and lead the echo-fest.
Driving home, reflecting on the experience, I recalled my studies in CT in a Zen workshop I took back then. It all fell into place.
That reflection follows.