There are so many things that I need to write about: Being on sabbatical, my premiere with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, my composing residency in Banff, etc. But there’s one experience this past week that really ripped my stuffing out and I’d like to share it (or maybe I just need to write about it). This is going to be a long one, but also an important one.
A few months ago, I wrote a post about a commission from Olds High School in Olds, Alberta, Canada for a concert band piece commemorating the life of a student who’d passed away that summer. The student’s name was Madison Fleming and, while I didn’t meet her, she felt like a kindred spirit to me. More on that later.
It took me about seven weeks to write it and, needless to say, it went through a lot of revision. When I sent it away, the teacher (Karri Anderson) thought it was appropriate and she liked it, which is important. Her correspondence was kind and heartfelt and, in one letter, she told me that she would be sending it to Madison’s mother, Pam. Pam described her memories of watching Madison and her brother play in the backyard, running through sprinklers, playing softball, and helping her in garden. It was hard to keep it together after reading that.
This music means something deeper than anything I can write or express. I feel so much gratitude for being a part of it, even though it was a bit terrifying to write; in fact, I almost didn’t take the commission because it was so much pressure. But as the great Michael Brandon has often said, you need to run toward the things that scare you.
As a teacher, there are few nightmares greater to me than losing a student. It is one of my worst fears and I hope I never have to go through it. Karri lost a student, Maddy’s friends lost one of their own, but Pam lost a daughter and that trumps everything. To be honest, I was really scared to to hand this piece out, which is one of the reasons why I needed to do it. While at my residency in Banff, I would come into school on the Monday and we’d introduce the piece.
I arrived at Olds on Sunday (Airdrie, actually) and crashed at Karri’s place after drinking wine and listening to band music until almost 1:00am (that’s what band teachers do – “Red Line Tango,” “Blue Shades,” the Alfred Reed “Greensleeves,” etc). We got to school early the next morning and made the parts. Grade 10 band was first, where we worked “Prairie Wedding” and then started “Matters of Kindness.” It’s a little bit hard for a Grade 10 band, but they did okay, especially emotionally. They didn’t really know Maddy that well because they were younger than her, so we rehearsed more than we engaged our hearts. After that was Grade 11 and 12 band and that was an entirely different story.
Maddy would have been in Grade 11 this year and, like the Grade 10s, we started with “Prairie Wedding,” which went pretty well, but there was a palpable distress in the air that not even my hyper-positivity could shake. They knew what was coming.
About halfway through the class, I looked over at Karri and she nodded back and we knew it was time to start. About three kids left before we even handed out parts. A few more left after the first few bars of the recording. Karri followed after to check on the kids and I could see the principal talking to some who were wiping their eyes.
I imagine that the commission wasn’t horribly exciting to some of the kids, it was terrifying. It would force them to engage in feelings that are so close and so traumatizing that they can’t even acknowledge them, let alone engage with them. This piece begins a process of emotional growth for these young humans that will initially push them and crush them, but will also eventually lift and strengthen them. So often in life, we aren’t ready for change, but we’re thrust into it. Growth is never, ever easy, but it happens to us whether we want it to or not. For so many of us, stagnation just isn’t an option.
But imagine getting the chance to use music – and in a group – to work through something that has ravaged you and your community. Imagine being able to do something collaborative, artistic, and in line with what Maddy would have wanted. Imagine being able to contribute something to send a message to those around you at the concert.
It’s going to be a really hard process for a lot of those kids, but often the best things in life are hard. JFK once said “we don’t go to the moon and do the other things because they’re easy, we do them because they’re hard,” but it’s more than that. Being a teenager is hard. Raising kids is hard. House renovations are hard. Finishing a big project, whatever it is, is usually hard…
… but you’re almost always better for having gone through it. The music itself isn’t that difficult, it’s facing their feelings that’s going to be hard, and I want to say that that’s part of the artistic experience, but it’s more than that: it’s part of the human experience.
What’s happening in that band room right now is Capital “M” Music / Capital “E” Education. We arts teachers try so hard to get the kids to feel things and interpret the struggle and that’s going to happening to some of those kids everyday. Those kids will be feeling that music pretty hard and their struggle is going to be very real. But we’re stronger together, aren’t we? When we band together as a group, a community*, or an ensemble we are capable of anything. We’re even capable of helping a grieving community by bringing a way for them to help say with music what their words can’t. Art only works when we look for something inside so we can express it on the outside and this is art in deepest expression.
Part of it is also who Maddy was. She was the type of person who believed in kindness for kindness’s sake, which is why I feel such a connection to her. She checked on her brother when he was out at a friend’s house, just to see how he was doing. She was the glue of her friend group who pushed them to experience new things in life instead of just doing the same old thing. She believed that the power of community can be used to overcome great obstacles, whether it’s her baseball team or her concert band. She believed in kindness – “Kindness matters” was something she said to people and that’s where “The Matters of Kindness” title comes from – kindness does matter, but sometimes we need to explore the matters of that kindness to express it truly and authentically.
After we left the school, Karri and I went to see Pam at her house. We sat in the immaculately clean living room where there were many pictures of family vacations, trips to the lake, and of course Madison. You just knew this was a family built on love. They are one of the greats. We all sat in a circle talking. We were a room of people just holding it together.
Even in the midst of such tragedy, we were overwhelmed with gratitude toward one another. I was grateful for Karri for pursuing a commission, and to Pam for allowing it, and they were grateful to me for accepting. There was a palpable feeling of love. I won’t recount everything in our conversation, but needless to say, Maddy’s death left a tremendous wake and we explored much of that in our talk.
I left Olds that afternoon feeling emotionally drained, but refreshed. There was teaching today, and genuine art-making. All of the things that music making entails were on display, all hearts were bared on sleeves. It makes me feel good about people in the world and that there are good people everywhere who want to do the right thing. Maddy was one of them, and even though she’s not here, we still are and we can make a difference. It doesn’t have to change the world, but it can change a person and, you know, that’s good enough for me.
* = when we were having breakfast that day, we were talking about the piece and the server approached and said “are you talking about Maddy?” then told us about how she worked at the elementary school while Maddy was a kid and how she was the bravest and strongest little kid she’d ever seen. We talked about her for about 10 minutes. That’s what happens in a small community and what happens to one happens to many.