Shannon Connelly Music Appreciation Grace Schwanda 12.01.2012
My Musical Heritage Iâ€™m a dreamer. I fantasize about everything, wherever I go. My imagination notebook follows me everywhere, and throughout my days I fill it with doodles, ideas, dreams, hopes, notions, stories, and impossibilities. I have been dreaming this way for as long as I can remember. My imagination has always run wild and my mind has been open to the universe. Music has always played an essential part of my dreaming. Music has colored in the lines of my doodles. It has opened the doors for expression of the impossible, and has provided a means for artistic outlet. I come from a family of musicians, and a long line of dreamers. My grandmother was born in Russia and has an amazing story of how, by Godâ€™s grace, her family made it to the States. Once she reached the United States, she discovered the piano. The instrument fascinated her and I love hearing her tell me about the times when sheâ€™d prop up a hymnal on the table and fly her fingers across imaginary keys. My grandmother became a brilliant pianist and to this day, she still faithfully plays for her church every Sunday and accompanies the choir. In turn, my mom also, is a marvelous pianist and singer. Some of my earliest memories involve my mom sitting at the piano, playing Christmas carols, and my older sister and I, singing along in our matching pink, silk nightgowns. Although not a musician, my dad makes his living as an artist, painting with oil paints, as well as doing design work on the computer. His mom, my other grandmother, is also a talented watercolor painter. I live in a family of artists and,
though for each of us our niche is slightly different, we still have a deep understanding and appreciation for one another. My family is very close and tightly knit. I have so many memories of the things that we’ve done together, not just during the holidays, but even during the summer months and dark, winter evenings. One thing I remember, ever so clearly, is watching old Roy Rogers movies. My family likes old things and we like the west. The subject of my dad’s paintings are almost all entirely representative of the old Southwest. He paints cowboys, horses, bull riders, and barn animals. He loves the old cowboys he remembers when he was a boy, so now all of his kids do, too. Watching a Roy Rogers movie was usually something that all of us could actually agree on doing. Ever since I was little, I had a crush on this iconic, crooning cowboy. I even had a CD of Roy Rogers music that featured the classics like I’m an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande) and Don’t Fence Me In. Rogers’ movies usually featured songs with dancing and costumes, which was where his wife, Dale Evans, really shined. Being a girl, I loved Dale Evans and loved her glitzy costumes and singing talent. My favorite parts of the movie were always the big musical numbers. Dale Evans always had the spotlight during the parts of the movie that depicted a stage show, and that was something I was never afraid of, being center stage. Evans wrote in her biography, “I was a born show-off. If ever I got a new dress, I could pirouette through the house in it, and I used to burst into song recitals at the slightest provocation.” That statement could’ve been written about me. As Evans recounted her childhood and young adulthood, I couldn’t believe at how much I felt I was like her.
I wouldn’t claim that Roy Rogers singlehandedly influenced me, in my ideas of music, growing up, or influenced the music to which I listened. In fact, I would say that Roy Rogers had little influence on my personal life as a musician and music listener. It wasn’t because of his music that I wanted to play, and it wasn’t Dale’s singing that made me want to sing. However, I think Roy Rogers represents something different, beyond music. I think I’m inspired by both of them because of their work ethic, their attitude, their efforts to make it to where they ended up in their career, and the importance and emphasis of family in their lives. While these things are not directly related to music, I think that music is directly related to them. These are basic ideas and principles that can be applied when trying to pursue whatever it is you love. So Roy Rogers and Dale Evans did not directly inspire my music, in and of itself, rather they inspired my mindset and philosophy I have towards music, performance, and listening. Being a dreamer as a little girl, I decided at a very young age that I wanted to play the harp. There is a lot from the earliest stages of my harp journey that I can’t remember, after all, I was so young. So for that, I’ve allowed my mom to fill me in on a lot of the details. I remember going to a concert when I was five where I first saw the harp being played. It was accompanying an orchestra, playing a beautiful piece titled Spring Breezes. After that, I had made up my mind that, out of the entire orchestra, that was the instrument I wanted to play. My mom, as any good mother does, used to come and tuck me into bed at night. Together we knelt at the side of my bed and said our prayers. I don’t remember this, but she tells me that I prayed for a harp every single night. For those who don’t know, harps are indeed big, grand, and majestic instruments, and therefore, come with a significant cost to accommodate this magnificence. Since she
knew this, my mom admits to rolling her eyes every time I prayed my fervent prayer. Seeing I wouldn’t give up on this hope, my parents took the first step, finding out what the first steps were towards becoming a harpist. The answer to that question was simple, piano lessons. I ready and eager to start piano anyway, so I got signed up. These piano lessons were the first formal musical training I had ever had, and I enjoyed them. A few years of piano went by, and although I still had high hopes for the harp, it still was an impossible dream. I moved on from the piano and started studying with a vocal coach. Roy Rogers didn’t have any formal musical training, in fact, nobody taught him anything about music. He just figured out what it was he needed to know. Rogers’ early life was entirely different from mine, after all he grew up at a different time, a different era. His family was incredibly poor and lived on a humble farm in Duck Run, Ohio. It was a tiny town, with only a few other farms. Rogers’ dad worked at a shoe factory and was usually gone two weeks at a time. That left Rogers with a pile of farm chores to do. He didn’t know anything about farming, but he figured it out. “I guess I figured it out pretty much like I figured out playing the mandolin and guitar,” he wrote, “No one ever taught me how to read music, but I picked out what I needed to know.” Rogers started his career as a singer. His earliest band was known as the O-Bar O Cowboys and consisted of five young men that took to touring the Southwest. The band was anything but successful at the beginning. They made little to no money and played in tiny theaters with barely any recognition from the public. Discouraged, members began to drop and soon the group was a trio. “We were doing mellow, three-part harmony yodeling, which was pretty novel in those days,” Rogers wrote, “The yodeling
was put together with some jazzy fiddle playing and syncopated singing- kind of an early version of what they later called Western swing.” Eventually Rogers’ band would be called the Sons of the Pioneers and featured in many of his movies. Rogers’ became so popular amongst American children especially, but families all over the world, and soon his western swing music and famous yodeling was recognized anywhere. There wasn’t much I could relate to when Rogers wrote about his childhood in Duck Run. I was fortunate to grow up with my family in the protective suburbs of Grand Rapids and the extent my chores involved things like dusting the mantle and cleaning the bedroom. Still, amongst chores and his daily routine, Rogers took to music to entertain himself. I was the same way. When I couldn’t be in front of the piano, I was singing my heart out all the time. Whenever I took to cleaning my room, I listened to music. This made the cleaning process take longer since I danced and pranced along as I carried out my chores. I had only been taking voice lessons for about two years when my dad received a phone call that literally changed my life. I still held onto my dream of someday being a harpist, but the dream seemed so out of reach, so impossible. My dad was a part of a local art club. One of the other members, Nancy, was a lady who, with her husband, Jim, were part of an Irish band. She played the accordion and he played the harp. On top of that, her husband made his own harps. My dad had mentioned to her before that his daughter loved the harp and would love to come see the harps at their house sometime. Nancy called my dad as promised to invite us over, but there was another offer that left my whole family wide-eyed and shocked. “Jim has two harps,” she explained to my dad,
“In case something happens to one, he has a backup. He rarely uses one of them though. So, if your daughter would like to try one out, you can keep one of them at your house indefinitely.” So we went to their house, and we brought home a harp, for free. I remember the next day sitting and playing that thing until my fingers were blistered and bleeding. Even then I couldn’t stop. We contacted the harpist, Laura, who I had seen perform Spring Breezes with the orchestra back when I was five. She started giving me some basic lessons. Unfortunately, soon after we started she had to leave town to finish school as now she was in college. This left me alone to teach myself. Harpists are hard to come by, and harpists who are willing to teach a child on an Irish folk harp (as opposed to the classical pedal harp) is an even harder feat. I couldn’t let anything stop me or hinder me from pursing me dream. After all, the impossible was starting to look a little more realistic, and the music I play seemed to pour out of me naturally. I felt comfortable playing the harp. With this in mind, I couldn’t help but understand when Dale Evans wrote, “Music was in my soul, and performing came naturally.” It didn’t take me long, when reading about both Rogers and Evans, that I found myself relating to Evans on a number of matters. Her journey as a musician, at times, reminded me of my own. At a very young age Evans learned to read and read well. She read everything she could get her hands on and memorized poems so she could recite them. “At any family gathering,” she explained, “all the relatives used to delight in coming up to me and saying, ‘Frances, recite something.’ I thrived on these command performances.” Evans started formal piano training as an eight-year-old, but they didn’t last long as she felt the scales and
such were “too boring.” Instead she began teaching herself and using her voice. Evans was a dreamer like I am. She dreamed and schemed and she longed to sing, to dance, to play. She wanted to do anything and everything that would allow her to perform. Evans’ career path to becoming a performer was a long and brutal one. She was married and had her first child at the extremely young age of fifteen. At age sixteen, she got divorced. Her mother was kind enough to help her support her child, but Dale was left to try to make a living for herself. She made her way to Chicago where she auditioned everywhere she possibly could as a vocalist. She performed as a Jazz singer, mostly for one-time events at ballrooms, hotels, and night clubs. She worked tirelessly at making a career for herself, stopping at nothing that seemed to get in her way. Teaching myself the harp was hard and discouraging. While I’d had formal training in both piano and voice, I struggled with technique and the physical aspects of playing. No matter these set backs, I was determined to learn as long as that instrument sat in my house. I struggled through three years learning this way before finally making contact with a professional in Caledonia who I would study with all the way through high school. Once I started the private lessons, we had finally commissioned Jim to build me my very own harp that we purchased. Of course this was an Irish lever harp, similar, but much different than the pedal harps seen with the symphony. Now that I had my own harp and I was studying with a professional, I finally began making significant improvements. This didn’t come easily. Going to lessons involved driving across town, over an hour, there and back. Anyone who plays an instrument knows that repetition is key. After working on tricky passages over and over, my fingers were usually blistered and bleeding. Still, I loved every minute of it and I just couldn’t stop.
The reality of my situation didn’t sink in until I was in 8th grade and I was asked to play Spring Breezes with the school orchestra, the very piece that had inspired me to pursue the harp in the first place. That was my first opportunity to play with the orchestra, and there were many more that followed. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a school district with an excellent music program. Because of this I’ve had opportunity to perform brilliant, iconic works including Overture to Candide by Leonard Bernstein, the orchestral suite for Disney’s Aladdin, A Christmas Celebration by Leroy Anderson, and The Many Moods of Christmas compiled by orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. I was a member of the pit orchestra when the school presented Disney’s musical Beauty and the Beast. When our orchestra participated in a side-byside concert with the Grand Rapids Symphony, I played America, the Beautiful alongside symphony harpist, Allison Reese. These are only a handful of the opportunities I’ve had with the harp. Playing all of this pieces really began to change how I perceived music and how I listened to it. The more I played with the orchestra, I understood more and more the technicality and musicality that is required for playing the piece well. I had greater respect for each of the composers, now realizing all the working parts of the orchestra and brilliance of how they were able to put that all together. Through all these years and experiences, my tiny little folk harp stayed faithful. I was able to alter a significant amount of symphony pieces to make my harp suitable for the music. Sometimes this wasn’t feasible, so the school would rent a full-size concert grand harp for specific events, which was the case for Beauty and the Beast and a few of the other orchestral numbers.
There was a moment of time, during my musical journey, that I struggled with the fact that I was playing an Irish harp. Most harpists pursue classical music on the pedal harp, and sometimes the folk harp is deemed inferior or used only for a student level, but the pedal harp was just something my family couldn’t afford at the time. This mindset was a hump in the road of my musical journey and I thought back on it when I was reading about Evans’ involvement in western pictures. During her days singing gigs in Chicago, Evans was offered the opportunity for a screen test in LA, and turned it down. She wanted to be a glamorous singer on the stage in big cities. She had no interest to be in pictures or pursue western music. Eventually, she was convinced to start doing pictures in LA which eventually lead her to meet Roy Rogers. When she was offered the roles in Westerns, Evans was anything but excited. Evans reflected back on her thoughts saying, “As for me, I never had thought of myself doing a Western. Sure, I had liked cowboy pictures as a child, but that was as a child. As a professional actor, my goals were grander than that. I thought I wanted to be in a sophisticated musical comedy- something debonair, urbane, and adult.” I think, in a way, these were the attitudes and ideas that were running through my mind, too. There had been a false message that had been pressed upon me making me think the folk harp was elementary, and inferior to the pedal harp. Unfortunately, there are many accomplished harpists out there who have this mindset. Looking back, I’m so thankful that these thoughts in my mind were only temporary, as they were for Evans, too. Evans worked significantly with Rogers before they were married. However, wanting something bigger and better than being Rogers’ girl in his westerns, Evans quit. She started exploring the opportunities to do musical
comedies, but while many situations presented themselves and looked hopeful, almost all of them fell through. Evans finally returned to the movie sets with Rogers. She finally recognized that that was where she felt that she belonged and where she felt she fit in. Fortunately, I came to this realization, too. I remember it clearly. In 2004 the touring show and Irish phenomenon, Celtic Woman, was birthed by musical director and composer David Downes. When the group was originally put together, it consisted of five women, four vocalists and one fiddler. One of the singers was also a harpist, Orla Fallon. I remember watching her play the harp as she sang along on their very first PBS special. Orlaâ€™s connection to the instrument was so evident and her playing and singing was very sentimental and heart-felt. I sought to have the same connection to the music when I played. I can honestly say that Orla truly became the reason as to why I was so in love with my Irish harp. She was brilliant in playing and it was through her, I discovered how I could play more challenging music with the folk harp. Finding advanced music for the folk harp is hard, because most of the difficult songs are jigs and reels that are learned by ear, not by notation. These fast, speedy jigs and reels cannot be played to perfection on a pedal harp. The pedal harp has strings that are more difficult to pull and the sound is more muted. The notes tend to blend together. On the folk harp, though, the strings have much more give to them, making them lighter and easier to pluck. The sound is very bright and notes are very crisp and clear. This kind of folk music communicated what I desired to communicate as a musician, as a dreamer, and as a story-teller. I wanted my music to tell stories, and thatâ€™s what Irish music does best It was actually just three months ago that I finally purchased a pedal harp of my own. The story of how that was made possible is another story in and of itself. I can tell
you that it was shipped from Spokane, Washington to Grand Rapids, Michigan and the fact that it arrived to my house in one piece is nothing short of a miracle. But no matter, I’m sitting here glancing over at two harps that belong to me, sitting in my house. Both harps are different and serve different purposes. I love smoothness and grandeur of the pedal harp. Its presence conveys power and strength and it belongs next to the symphony. Still, I do not, by any means, dismiss the significance of the Irish harp. It’s my true love. It is simple and represents community and family. This kind of harp is the national symbol of Ireland and, therefore, it holds so much history. So many songs were passed down from generation to generation on this kind of instrument. It has a much more twangy sound but the strings are very light and bright to pluck. It is much more expressive and emotional to me. While it seems a stretch to connect Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, iconic American heros of the old Southwest, with the ancient myths and legends of Ireland, they both hold a significance in my life, and at the root, represent something very similar. I believe that music is meant to be experienced in community. It’s meant to be shared and passed on. Music allows for the impossible to happen and it communicates beyond language and culture. Family and community, is in fact, at the root of both the old western ballads and the Irish tunes. Both these genres of music tell stories. They portray the emotions that every human being in their life endures- happiness, love, sorrow, and loss. Music is an art form that moves through time, something that has a starting point and an end. Symphony orchestras, ensembles, and bands of any kind, are a team that together have to bond in order to create something that is aesthetically pleasing to the ear. Even people who don’t know anything about music or don’t have any formal
training, can still sit in a concert hall in awe when their ears take in Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven. Everyone can connect with music on some level, no matter their background or circumstances. I love music because it is complicated and it’s something I can’t wrap my head around. Yet at the same time, I love music because it’s simple and it’s something I understand. The world of music is like the sea. It’s so vast, the whole thing cannot be seen at one time, and it segues itself right into the endless blue sky. Music is a beautiful and wonderful thing, but it remains so mysterious and enigmatic. I love thinking that the musical possibilities are endless, just like the sea that disappears into the sky. I love dreaming and pondering that I can always strive to be better and always pursue excellence on a greater, deeper level. However, I stand inspired by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, who used their music to strengthen the bond within their family, and tell stories to draw them together. So as I stand and listen on the shore of musical possibilities, I dream and hope that I’ll discover stories of my own to pass on and share with my children and my children’s children, continuing a legacy that was started in days gone by, and will last for many more.
SOURCES Rogers, Jr., Roy “Dusty”. Growing Up with Roy and Dale. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1986. N. pag. Print. Rogers, Roy, and Dale Evans. Happy Trails: Our Life Story. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. N. pag. Print.
My journey as a musician and music listener.