For the past thirteen summers, I have taught music at the Woodlands, an organization dedicated to enriching the lives of children and young adults with disability and chronic illness. The dream began after a Pittsburgh Symphony concert in 1999, in the home of Sydelle Kessler, when Dr. Don Reigle, a retired neurosurgeon, told us of his dream to create a music camp for youngsters with every kind of disability imaginable, and how he thought those of us in the room were just the ones to do it.
And so, in July 2000, Andrew Clark (now Director of Choral Activities at Harvard University), Lucas Richman (Music Director of the Bangor and Knoxville Symphony Orchestras) and I created a curriculum that would include three classes a day -- instruments class, chorus class, and music appreciation. What we did not know at the time was how much these kids would be teaching us.
Each camp has culminated in a concert at the end of the week. A highlight of year one was seeing PSO concertmaster, Andres Cardenes, perform a duet with Anne Marie Suski, a violinist with spina bifida. What the audience did not know was that earlier that day, during a prolonged dress rehearsal in the hot sun, not one camper complained. Instead, the children patiently waited for us to get our act together, while counselors attended to the kids with cold water. As if to proclaim how miraculous these children are, the rainfall at concert time eventually gave way to a rainbow in clear view above the stage. It was a magical conclusion to a magical week.
Except for one year when his daughter was born, Andy Clark has been there every year, leading the camp chorus, with the help of Lily Abreu and Jennifer Klenk. Mary Lou Bushyager took over the instruments class six years ago, and Lucas has taught composition.
Yes, composition. You'd think writing music would be hard enough to teach to students with real talent and no disability. But some of these campers get it into their heads that they can do what Lucas does -- create a song of their own. And so George Casselberry, a youngster whose cerebral palsy forced him to move from the trombone to harmonica, wrote the camp's theme song, performed every year, "Woodlands Music." (By the way, George's aural gifts go beyond perfect pitch -- his ear is so fine that he has helped a local ornithologist find and name a bird heretofore unknown to him!)
Because of the advances in modern day science, we know much more about these campers than we might have one hundred years ago. A Dynavox gives voice to those without any motor skills beyond the movement of their head, allowing one young woman, Sara Pyszka, to co-write a musical with Lucas. (Oh yes, when they last checked, Sara's IQ is somewhere in the territory of 170. She is a beautiful girl, blessed with a smile of enchantment.) Another young man with CP, Mark Steidl, wrote music for the campers promenade last year; this year, celebrating the "America the Beautiful" theme, Mark created a dramatic revolutionary scene where campers played colonial citizens defying the word of George III.
For my daily music appreciation class, I use the first half of the hour to play music mostly unknown to them -- everything from Bach and Beethoven to Copland and Gershwin. For the younger kids, I play Peter and the Wolf. For the older kids, I can discuss everything from variation form to harmonic deception. Then, once they've had their fill of me, I play their music: everything from Lady Gaga and Phil Collins to AC/DC and Taylor Swift. And suddenly, they all stand up (if they can) and rush to the front of class, and . . . . . they dance. Their counselors dance with them, as do I. (You should see some of the kids who do amazing spins in their wheelchairs!)
Some kids have Williams Syndrome, others have Downs, or Fragile X. Some have autism, such as Moscow-born Jane, who played a beautiful rendition of "On a Summer's Day" at the piano. A few take great pains (and pride) in occasionally eschewing their wheelchair for a walker -- not easy to do, given some of the steep walkways on campus. Some campers from past years have since died, such as Tyler (who played a mean tenor sax), or Heather (a sweet girl who loved her clarinet). Bobby had a condition so severe that he laid stomach down on an electric bed. There wasn't ever a time when I saw him without a smile on his face. I miss Bobby.
I love these kids, who teach me so much more about life than I could ever teach them about music. But music is what brings us together, every year, and for that I am so thankful.