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NGI Recipient: Michelle Levy

Session Attended: CDS Boston Centre - July 4th Weekend (2011)

Dear Hal Wagner, Sharon Green, and the CDS Boston Centre Grants Committee:

Attending the July 4th Weekend at Pinewoods this year was a thrilling experience. Thank you for your generous support.

I attended Pinewoods with 3 main goals:

1) To improve my ability to play for dances by becoming better acquainted with ECD/Contra dance forms and repertoire by dancing to, listening to, observing and taking classes from some of the best musicians and callers in the country, and to use this knowledge to improve the dance music in the Bay area, CA, through my band Stringfire as well as with my music students.

2) To get ideas on how to teach a music class of mixed ages and levels effectively by taking Pinewoods’ music workshop.

3) To get to know the Boston area ECD/Contra dance & musical community, and to explore which elements of the traditional dance scene in MA, the Bay area community in CA might benefit from.

The experience at Pinewoods surpassed all my expectations. Not only were the musicians on staff absolutely inspiring, but they were also very friendly and encouraging, and I was lucky enough to get to play with Dave Langford and Karen Axlerod, thereby experiencing dance music at a very high level and learning new techniques by osmosis. Anna Patton instructed the music workshop brilliantly, and I watched in disbelief as, under her clear and seemingly effortless guidance, students had major musical breakthroughs – grasping very advanced musical concepts – in less than an hour at the very first class. This is a tribute to effective teaching, and this experience has greatly influenced the way I will lead the camper band at “Hey Days” English Week this summer in California.

What I didn’t expect is that I would also come away from the Pinewoods experience inspired and re-energized about music and community. Joining the song circle at the porch-sing one evening as the sun rested low in the sky over the lake, I listened as each person, one by one, took their turn in the circle starting a song, and most joined in. It seemed to me that this is how communities maintain their relationships and stay together: everyone gives what they can (in this case, a song), and when everyone joins in, not only are they reaffirming their acceptance of each other, but they’re focused on a collaborative effort that is creating something deeper and greater than anything that one person alone can make. Previously, I co-led song circles in my community before dances on several occasions, but only because I was asked to. I don’t think I ever understood, until now, the effect song circles have on bringing communities closer together. Now I am inspired to continue this tradition.

In addition, I realized from attending Pinewoods (as well as some local dances while I was in Massachusetts), that part of what keeps the community thriving is the wide range of ages that attend the dances. Young people, young at heart, everyone in between, and even whole families come to dance together. The result being that a combination of youthful energy mixes with wisdom and experience, creating a strong and vibrant community that breaks down social barriers. This particular mix of ages is missing in the San Francisco bay area, and while I’ve known this to be a challenge, now that I have seen and felt the difference and know what the dances can be like if only we could get more age diversity, I feel inspired to help my community address this issue.

Finally, I would like to share a testimony to the magic of Pinewoods: for the last year, I had been desperately wanting to write a fiddle tune about the experience of “running” (paddling a raft through) Blossom Bar, the most dangerous rapid on the Rogue River in Oregon. People have died in that rapid, and it’s impossible to run it without remembering those who’ve come before and didn’t make it. The problem was that I couldn’t write music without having a pre-existing poem to work from first. I even ran the rapid again a few days before arriving at Pinewoods, but still the music wouldn’t come to me, and I felt more frustrated than ever. So for a year this tune sat unwritten, weighing on my shoulders… until I came to Pinewoods.

A couple days before camp, Larry Unger — another staff member at Pinewoods, though not at July 4th Weekend– had offered some helpful advice for the tune, offering the start of a chord structure and even suggesting I put in “a dangerous note.” After a night of being up late dancing and singing, then tossing and turning the rest of the night because my head was full of music, and missing breakfast, I was too caffeine-deprived and happily exhausted to think– just the right combination, apparently, for writing a fiddle tune. So after a year of not being able to come up with a single note, I took out my fiddle out under the beautiful pine trees, and the tune wrote itself in under 5 minutes. It may not be anything special for some people, but it means a lot to me. For the first time, I was able to write a piece of music without needing words first. That broke the ice, and now I feel liberated with a new creative direction to explore.

Thank you again for this amazing opportunity and I hope to see you again.