It's early December in the Northeast as I ride the bus en route to a gig. The hills and fields of rural New Jersey are brown and ochre, like a scene from an Andrew Wyeth watercolor. The afternoon is cloudy, given to reminiscences. Whose face should come to mind but that of my late friend and colleague Brian Grice, the great drummer. My friendship with Brian, and with guitarist Mike Coon, grew as a result of the Music Outreach elementary school shows we did nearly every weekday for several years.
Mike, Brian, and I each had our own style of presenting the information to the kids, but the common theme was that of making sure each and every child could leave the workshop having not only experienced live music (often for the first time) but also having learned things about culture, geography, history and many other subjects. A unique program created specifically for the New York City public school system, Music Outreach gave cultural sustenance to thousands upon thousands of schoolchildren over the many years of its existence.
There were so many workshops, it was inevitable that sometimes one would fall on my birthday. On one such occasion, we walked into a classroom for developmentally disabled kids. One little boy was wearing a crown made of gold and yellow paper, with bits of other colors decorating its band. It was his birthday. He was born on the same day as I, but had been given other challenges, other talents, other experiences to have in this life.
I normally don’t tell anyone when it’s my birthday. But on this day, I leaned down to whisper in that little boy’s ear, "Wanna know a secret?". He looked at me wide-eyed and nodded yes. "But you can't tell anyone," I said. He nodded again and I told him, "Here's the secret: it's my birthday too!" His face became round and rosy, and we exchanged knowing looks.
A clamor arose from his classmates. "What did she tell you!" But he only smiled. Perhaps we share our secret to this very day; I still think about that boy and wish him well.
I have always believed that artists, sports figures–indeed all people in the public eye–should recognize the fact that they are role models for children. We can be role models not only through our chosen field but also in our daily comportment. This idea was driven home to me after one particular Music Outreach workshop. The teacher approached me, saying "you made a little girl very happy today." I smiled and thanked her, thinking she was referring to my performance on the clarinet and saxophone.
"All the kids were teasing her," the teacher continued, “because she came into school this morning with a very short haircut. But when she saw you had a short haircut too, now she feels proud and pleased with herself."
When we recall our schooldays, I doubt if any of us thinks much about sitting in math class, doing assignments, or even playing dodgeball at recess. Rather, what we tend to remember are those visits from musicians–the ones who played and sang for us, making us feel alive and special and full of wonder for that one day, and possibly forever. At any rate, I know those visits define my own school years. I hope that I have given back some of the wonder I experienced to the children of today, and am grateful the Music Outreach program gave me the opportunity to do so.