A Conversation with Marty Grebb Part 3: Leon Russell, Songwriting, and Rhythm Guitar

Steve Duchrow, Director of Performing Arts, and Susanne Kepley, Manager of Marketing, had the great honor of speaking with musician Marty Grebb this past week and we’re beyond excited to share some of their conversation in this three-part blog series. Marty plays saxophone, piano, organ, and sings with the band The Weight. In “Part 3,” Marty shares his thoughts on songwriting, what he learned from Leon Russell, and what it takes to be a great rhythm guitarist. Marty and the other members The Weight will be performing music of The Band here at the ECC Arts Center, TONIGHT,  Friday, March 13. In addition to Marty, The Weight features Jim Weider and Randy Ciarlante of The Band, and Brian Mitchell and Byron Isaacs of The Levon Helm Band. Enjoy!  Missed Part 2: Read Marty’s take on The Buckinghams, The Dells, and Etta James. Missed Part 1? Check out Marty’s reflections on Bonnie Raitt and The Band!

Marty, we understand that this songwriting can be a really complex process, but when you’re co-writing with people or when you were working with Levon or Rick or Richard, is there some unique singular thing you got from them when it comes to the songwriting process?

You bet brother.

Is it for sale?

[Laughing] Well, uh, no, and thank god it’s not. But it is for free. And it is there to be grabbed. And it does come in wonderful phrases from characters like that. I mean, Leon Russell is the most eloquent person and he says things in his own fashion in a Southern gentlemanly way, similar to what Levon Helm did[…]

So when you ask me questions about songwriting, I would say it’s kind of paying attention to conversations and paying attention to what’s there, what’s going on at the time. I think Bob Dylan writes topically a lot. And he also denies maybe some of his soft heartedness. If you listen to song of his like “What Good Am I,” which is one of my favorites, or maybe “The Chimes of Freedom” from his early days. You hear his love of mankind. And you hear him put it into wonderful poetic sensibility and musical sensibility. But as far as buying any of that. I think it’s kind of—he got what he got, let’s say Bob Dylan for example, from all the people he was around and he was like a sponge. And I am definitely a sponge.

I got to sit on a riser above Leon Russell every night and watch his hands. And when I joined his band it was because he knocked on my door and he said “I heard you on this Rhinestone’s album and I heard about you from a few people. Want you to come and audition. I’m putting a band together and we’re going on tour in a couple of weeks and I hope you’re good.” That was it. And then when I was on tour with him—we started rehearsing with him before the tour—and he said “Oh, okay, so you’re gonna play saxophone but you play guitar, too, don’t ya? And I said “Yeah.” And I played something for him and he said “Okay, well, I’m going to put your saxophones on stands so you can walk up to them and play solos but you’re gonna play rhythm guitar and stand above me and then when I play guitar you’re gonna to play piano.” [He said it] all like in one breath like that. I went like “ehhaaaa?” But ya know, I did it. So there’s another school, right there. And there’s another songwriting school, too. That was a huge songwriting school. Being around guys like that, or being around Rick Danko and especially Richard Manuel.

And so I’ll give you an example of another way that I can answer your question, anytime that I have struggled to make something happen in the music business or my life or labored hard at it, it’s never worked. I’ve always, it’s always, like Leon says in one of his songs “I wrote a lot of songs, I wrote some bad rhyme.” [From “Song for You] Those are usually the ones that are the bad songs if I, if I’m sweating bullets over and laboring over it, it usually doesn’t turn out very well. If it just kinda comes out of the sky from God and I go wow and write it down or if I have the musical idea for it or the lyric for it first and that’s usually it and the fire just gets hot, ya know, and that’s how it’s been in my career with getting hired by people too. It’s always been the phone rings and this one says, “hey, will you come and do that.” It’s never me making 100 phone calls and going nowhere.

[…] Leon Russell would call that particular song [“Song for You] a true song…In other words, that’s something that happened in his life that he wrote about. It’s not a story that he made up or he’s just waxing poetically about this and that. And he has told me that his favorite songs are true songs. They come from his real life.

And a lot of that is very, very, very spiritual […] If she wouldn’t mind me saying so, I was allowed to see Bonnie Raitt have a spiritual awakening of sorts before she wrote songs to the Nick of Time album and that’s why that record was so successful. Because she had such a strong connection suddenly, a burst, and those bursts don’t happen forever in your life. Things happen, ya know, people die, children do this, mom does this, dad does that, you’re pulled this way and that way by all kinds of forces that are beyond your control and then there’s these beams of light that come down and hit you in the heart and then there’s the song.

 In your bio it says that Leon Russell said that you were one of the finest rhythm guitarists he’s ever worked with. If you could define what makes a great rhythm player, what made you a great rhythm guitar player, what was that?

Well, I would say pretty simply that it’s become a lost art. It’s slowly coming back into the horizon, ya know, there are kids who are taking interest again, but I put it down to the fact that kids lost interest in playing rhythm guitar. Nobody wanted to play rhythm guitar behind Jesus. Everybody wanted to play the great solo and  be the lead player and all that stuff and that’s what happened.

But if you listen to guys like Curtis Mayfield and you go back to listen to some of those early Impressions records, you will hear what Jimi Hendrix has said himself “That’s where I got part of my style.” And Jimi Hendrixm when he played a lot besides his solos, he was playing with a trio. So he was playing rhythm guitar parts and when he played solos, it was just the bass going on. But he had to play a lot of these unique ideas and stuff. I think that Leon was referring to [was that] I was playing parts that were being caused by me listening to what the band was playing and not focusing on “hey, I’m going to show you my lick now.”

We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Marty Grebb! We’re so honored that he took the time to speak with us.  Missed a part? Read “Part 2: The Buckinghams, The Dells, Chicago, and Etta James” or “Part 1: Bonnie Raitt and The Band.”

The Weight: Featuring members of The Band, The Levon Helm Band, and the Rick Danko Group will be performing here at the ECC Arts Center on Friday, March 13 at 7 p.m. For tickets and information, call 847-622-0300 or visit tickets.elgin.edu.

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A Conversation with Marty Grebb Part 2: The Buckinghams, The Dells, Chicago, and Etta James

Steve Duchrow, Director of Performing Arts, and Susanne Kepley, Manager of Marketing, had the great honor of speaking with musician Marty Grebb this past week and we’re beyond excited to share some of their conversation in this three-part blog series. Marty plays saxophone, piano, organ, and sings with the band The Weight. In “Part 2,” Marty shares his experiences growing up in the Chicago music scene including recollections of his time with The Buckinghams, playing with Chicago’s Peter Cetera while still in high school, his friendship with The Dells, and working with Etta James. Marty and the other members The Weight will be performing music of The Band here at the ECC Arts Center Friday, March 13. In addition to Marty, The Weight features Jim Weider and Randy Ciarlante of The Band, and Brian Mitchell and Byron Isaacs of The Levon Helm Band. Enjoy! Stay tuned tomorrow for “Part 3″ in which Marty talks about Leon Russel, songwriting, and rhythm guitar. Missed Part 1? Check out Marty’s reflections on Bonnie Raitt and The Band!

Tell us about your Dad and his history. He was heavy into the Big Bands at the time and helped teach you in terms of some of your musical training?

My father was on the road a lot and my mom was a piano player and he had met her at a party and they had just immediately bonded. He was a WWII guy—went off to the war, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, helped capture Dachau concentration camp. He was a saintly, powerful man. Had boxed CYO and even went up to the Golden Globes level. He was a football player. All that stuff, a sports guy but a very musical, soft-spoken man, powerful type of personality. And that’s what he gave to the people that he taught. As time went by and he came off the road, my brother and I were both on tour with him at times when he had to go out and travel on those old school buses of the day.  When my older brother was old enough to start Kindergarten, he stopped and opened up a music school and started teaching around the Chicago-area, over there on the South Side. […] He had a music store there that had all these instruments in it and I was there on Saturdays doing various things to help clean up the store but I had a lot of free time so there’d be a room with drums in it or an organ or this or that and I just would woodshed. And ask my brother questions, who is a guitarist who wrote instruction books later in his life with guitar greats like Howard Roberts and Joe Pass and people like that, and still is there, as we speak, in Chicago with my Mom.

You grew up in the Chicago music scene and your parents were part of that and you started playing professionally in your teens, yes?

I started playing professionally at age 12 […] There were a lot of weddings to play and I had an accordion friend and a drummer friend and I was a little more timid to jump into that realm than they were. The drummer especially, Denny Ebert, who I would have a long history with in my life. But anyway, so we would play mostly weddings, and events at restaurants or private parties and stuff. And at that time in Chicago even if you were 12 or 13 years old, I was tall for my age—I had a growth spurt around then—you could walk up to the wedding bar and get yourself a, ya know, whatever! They would just hand you stuff and so it was hog heaven for me. I was partying at a young age. Without my parents knowing about it, of course.

What was “the scene” like as it evolved from when you were 12 to when you were in your early 20s and part of The Buckinghams?

Well, I was in a band called the Quintones which was more of a R&B, New Orleans-based band. Ya know, we would play Clarence Frogman Henry songs with two tenor saxes and I was playing mostly tenor sax. We had hired a guy to play piano and he was a real good looking guy and sang. We’d play a lot of the dances and there’d be all kinds of fights and stuff. “You’re trying to dance with my girlfriend and all that.” That went on for several years. We played record hops. Until I got into high school and went to Mendel High School [which is] where I met Peter Cetera and I was already in a band called “The Exceptions.” That really was the eye-opener and the life change. That band became partly The Buckinghams because I came from that band and partly the group Chicago. We worked at a club downtown on rush street called the Pussycat and a lot, a lot, a lot of people would come there. […] And Peter later went on to be in Chicago as did I for a couple years, I played with that band for a couple years, too, after The Buckinghams. But we were all lead singers and harmonized and a lot of people came in to sit in with us, The Hollies, and this one and that. I got to meet a lot of the English acts as they came through.

But the main thing that changed everything for me besides being in that band was backing up some of the black soul singers of that time. I got to meet Etta James and The Dells and Curtis Mayfield and a lot of those people that got signed to VJ Records. The Dells were a five man singing group who had hits like “Oh What a Night.” They had hits in the ’70s and we brothered up with them and they took us everywhere. They took us places like the Tri-State Inn in Indiana where it was a dirt floor. And there was no—you could walk up to the bar and get drinks with no ice. Really a hardcore place. And there was a guy with sunglasses on at 11 o’clock at night, sitting there, at the door, leaning with a chair back against the wall. Asked me where I was going. I was the last one in the line, I was straggling a bit. And he says “Where are you goin?” And I said “I’m with the Dells, I’m gonna—here to play.” And he said “You got a dollar?” And I said “Whoa, I just have to go—“ and then he opened up his vest and he had a gun. And I said “Oh a dollar! Well, sure. Have 2 dollars!” And I said “I have to go in now.” And he said, “Yeah, well you gotta come out, too.”

Those kind of stories go on in my life which were big instructional, ya know, huge, huge events that going to music conservatory for example could not touch. That was school. That was big. That was hearing in real life. Five guys coming over to actually my neighborhood when I was 16. And that was a “no, no”—to have black people come into a white neighborhood and be able to rehearse back then. That was not being done. And my mother and father were very non-racist, love everybody in the world and universe kind of people, so they thought nothing of that. But, ya know, there we all were. Kind of brothers in arms, and I learned a lot from that. That was ground-breaking and earth-shattering to me.

That taught me to become a real singer for one thing. I was a poor singer at the time. Peter Cetera was already a very good singer […] But I had to struggle to become a singer and go through a lot of things and because of those situations, I did. That was school.

What was it about it that made you a “real” singer? Was it style? Was it technique? Was it both? What moved you?

It was standing next to someone and seeing how good they were and hearing how good they were and going, “Oh, wow. Oh, so that’s the rung on the ladder I need to go for. That’s how you do that.” That’s—you hear it night after night—you hear what someone can do vocally in their range or you hear their power or meeting Etta James who talked like a longshoreman. She had that way of talking but her voice was so powerful. She had the most powerful voice I’ve ever heard in my life and I ended up working with her years later […]

So anyway, there’s this circle of things that happened, it’s all interconnected in some weird, blessed way that God has divined upon me to bless my life, and let me meet these people one at a time and that would include going on tours in the summer when I was still in high school with me and Peter [Cetera] and Kal [David] and Denny Ebert and meeting a guy like Mike Finnigan in Kansas who now works with Bonnie Raitt and I met him when I was 16 and we’ve been friends for life and we’ve been in a lot of situations together but that’s how my life has been. I’ve met people that I have known forever. And you could look at it maybe as a chance meeting, but it’s really not. To me, it’s God’s hand in there going “Okay, now meet this one,” “now meet that one.” “Here ya go, and here’s your way.
He’s always been there to direct me to what is next. […] I got to arrange some horns for Buddy Guy and play on some of his albums and a lot of blues greats. Eric Clapton, Otis Rush, and I got to play with Muddy Waters through Bonnie Raitt, actually, because they were good friends, but I had [also] met Muddy Waters in my high school days, and, Pinetop Perkins got to be a friend of mine, a teacher of mine, actually, and stuff. And so yeah, I was in the right place at the right time, for sure.

Part 3 of our conversation with Marty Grebb will be posted tomorrow, Friday, 3/13. Marty talks about Leon Russel, songwriting, rhythm guitar, and more. Read “Part 1″ of our conversation with Marty!

The Weight: Featuring members of The Band, The Levon Helm Band, and the Rick Danko Group will be performing here at the ECC Arts Center on Friday, March 13 at 7 p.m. For tickets and information, call 847-622-0300 or visit tickets.elgin.edu.

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A Conversation with Marty Grebb Part 1: Bonnie Raitt and The Band

The Weight

The Weight: (Left to right) Jim Weider, Brian Mitchell, Marty Grebb, Byron Isaacs, Randy Ciarlente,

Steve Duchrow, Director of Performing Arts, and Susanne Kepley, Manager of Marketing, had the great honor of speaking with musician Marty Grebb this past week and we’re beyond excited to share some of their conversation in this three-part blog series. Marty plays saxophone, piano, organ, and sings with the band The Weight. He’s also an accomplished rhythm guitarist. He’s got a lot of truly amazing a stories about his life and musical career (yes, he is writing a book) as well as unique insight into the evolution of the music business over the last 50 years. Marty was an original member of The Buckinghams and has  played with Bonnie Raitt, Etta James, Leon Russel, Eric Clapton, Greg Allman, Chicago, and The Band’s Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Jim Weider, and Randy Ciarlante.  In “Part 1″ of our series Marty shares how he got to know Bonnie Raitt, the members of The Band, and shares some memories of The Band’s famed Shangri-La Recording Studio. Marty and the other members The Weight will be performing music of The Band here at the ECC Arts Center Friday, March 13. In addition to Marty, The Weight features Jim Weider and Randy Ciarlante of The Band, and Brian Mitchell and Byron Isaacs of The Levon Helm Band. Enjoy! And stay tuned tomorrow for “Part 2″ in which Marty talks about how he got his start in Chicago working with Peter Cetera of Chicago, The Buckinghams, and The Dells.

Marty we have so many questions, we feel like we could talk to you for hours. All of the historic musical moments that you’ve been around, the people you’ve worked with–you’re like a member of the music royal family. So once again, we’re honored to have a little time to ask a few questions and just have a conversation about your reflections on a couple things.

Well, I’ll have some answers, and I’m a pretty well-kept secret, but ask away and I’m happy to answer whatever you got for me.

You’ve worked with Bonnie Raitt for many years. How did you meet her?

She came through Woodstock when I was playing with The Fabulous Rhinestones which was a Michael Lang managed band. Michael Lang was the guy who put on the Woodstock Festival, the guy with the curly hair. So he got a lot of money thrown at him by the Gulf and Western Company and they said, “Here, have some office and have a record label.” And he signed people and we were one of them through Harvey Brooks. And I was asked to come to Woodstock and that’s how I met all the guys from The Band. And Bonnie came through town and saw me playing at the Café Espresso. David Sanborn was on tour and she wanted to get someone to play an alto solo and then she needed an organist. And she said “hey, can you do both things?” Which I did. On her first “Give It Up” album for Warner Brothers.

Since we’re getting excited for The Weight’s performance here on March 13, can you talk a little bit about how you became connected with The Band?

I had moved in, I guess it was early—either late ’69 winter or early ’70 winter—I can’t remember which, somewhere right in there, to Woodstock to become part of the band The Fabulous Rhinestones and at that time that town was small and not like it is now. It’s much more—tt was taken over sort of by what was then considered the Yuppie contingency. Sometime in the early ‘80s is when that started. But at that time it was just this little, quiet, beautiful town in the mountains where there were all these bands. Jimmy Hendrix had a house there, Janis Joplin had a house there. And Michael Lang was there. And The Band was there. And I had met Richard and Rick and Levon but I hadn’t met Garth.

Garth is one of the two musical geniuses I know in my life and one of the kindest hearts. Just one of the deepest persons I’ve ever met. The most earthshattering conversations I’ve ever had have been both with him and Leon Russell. They’re just really deep, deep, people or Bob Dylan for that matter. There’s another character, too. But Garth heard I needed a piano, somehow—I don’t know how—to do  our first album. And he just sent one over. He had about 10 of ‘em in a collection he had found by searching through newspapers because then there was no online and you could find stuff in Grandmas living room and whatever. He got some great pianos and had them stored and he sent me one over. And that’s how I became friends with him. And still am.  I was on tour with him two summers ago. And moved to the east coast to begin work with him.

But I also got to become really good friends with Richard and Rick and Levon and toured individually with them. In Rick’s band, his individual stuff. And I wrote a bunch of songs with Richard gradually and began recording them in the late 1970s. All of that stuff was lost. It was originally started on 4-track, but recently in the last year and a half it’s been found and restored. Not into pristine condition in some cases but a lot of it’s been redone. A lot of the songs were co-written with Terry Danko, Rick’s brother, Richard and myself and some with Garth Hudson. So sometime this year when the deck’s are cleared and all of the heirs agree and all of the t’s are crossed and I’s are dotted legally, that album will come out. It will be a Richard Manuel solo record.

On The Band’s famed Shangri-La Ranch Recording Studio:

Shangri-La Ranch was a recording studio where also, coincidentally, many people recorded. The Band built that place by renting it and leasing it. And they built it and Bonnie ended up recording there and Eric Clapton recorded there. So I lived right down the street. I was in on all that. Once again with all of us with our hands on the “Fun Button.”  If you can imagine, all that group of people. It was just hilarious and crazy times. […] When the disco era was going on. And we had nothing to do with that. We were, ya know, in Shangri-La in rehearsal studios and on tour playing blues music and part of that was working with Rick or Richard or I toured with Levon, too.

[I] was part of a film endeavor for Steven Seagal [with Levon Helm] called Fire Down Below and I wrote some of the songs and music for that and went on tour with Levon to promote that. So we got to really have a good time. And I wrote some songs with him, too, that are on some of The Band records. And then they recorded some of my songs in that second coming of the Band. And I played some of that, too. So that is how the connection with Jim and Randy [Jim Weider and Randy Ciarlante of The Weight] happened. Because they started hearing some of my material.

My whole life has been like that. It’s been just an ongoing occurrence of reestablishing and revisiting these wonderful musical friendships that are so important to my survival and state of mind and everything about me. And that includes all of those guys. And, it’s funny, ya know. I talked to Peter Cetera [of the band Chicago] a couple of days ago and he said that he thought the best band still was The Exceptions [a band Peter and Marty were in as teens in Chicago] and that it was unfortunate that nobody really got to hear of us and we didn’t get to do more because we broke up. There are a few recordings out there, but not much. But he said “Wow, it’s amazing that you’re getting to play with Garth Hudson, who’s one of my all-time heroes.” And I said “Yeah.” All of this stuff that I’m getting to do in the aftermath of the fact that there is hardly anyone left from the original Band except for Garth and Robbie, and now here I am playing with guys who have tight connections also in a similar fashion to myself. Ya know, that includes Brian Mitchell and Byron Isaacs both of whom were in Levon’s band. So it’s like full circle.

My hope and desire is that  you will come and hear. Everybody who [reads]  this interview will come and hear the heartfelt music of The Weight and all those individual players who need to be heard and are all great amazing players in their own right and have a lot of amazing heart and soul to share with all of you who show up to the show.

Part 2 of our conversation with Marty Grebb will be posted tomorrow, Thursday, 3/12. Marty talks about getting his start playing in Chicago, meeting Peter Cetera in High School, his early band The Exceptions, The Dells, Etta James and more. 

The Weight: Featuring members of The Band, The Levon Helm Band, and the Rick Danko Group will be performing here at the ECC Arts Center on Friday, March 13 at 7 p.m. For tickets and information, call 847-622-0300 or visit tickets.elgin.edu.

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A dinosaur zoo (plus a dinosaur-themed dinner) roar into Elgin!

Dinosaur Zoo LiveWe’re so excited to have Dinosaur Zoo Live visit Elgin this April. This interactive,  educational, and very fun theatrical production hails from Australia and was created by ERTH Visual & Physical Theatre, INC., a company that specializes in “giant puppetry, stilt-walkers, inflatable environments, aerial and flying creatures.” A Dinosaur Zoo is right up their alley and we can wait to meet all these magnificient prehistoric creatures, both big and small, on Tuesday, April 1 at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, April 2 at 9:45 a.m.

~Colonial LOGO 2014But that’s not all! In honor of Dinosaur Zoo Live, Colonial Café will be offering a special dinosaur-themed kids menu on April 1 and 2. Check out the super-fun the menu: Prehistoric Punch, Pterodactyl Tenders, Brontosaurus Burgers, and a Swamp Sundae. All guests will also receive a coloring sheet and a special dinosaur prize. The dinosaur menu will be available at the Colonial Cafés on McLean Blvd. (conveniently located right next to ECC’s main entrance) and the St. Charles-West restaurant located on Randall Rd. The menu will be available from 4-10 p.m. on Tuesday, April 1 and by request for lunch on Wednesday, April 2.

Check out a preview of Dinosaur Zoo Live below and get ready to meet the dinosaurs!

The Elgin Community College Arts Center presents Dinosaur Zoo Live on Tuesday, April 1 and Wednesday, April 2. For performance tickets and information, call the ECC Arts Center box office at 847-622-0300 or visit tickets.elgin.edu. For more information on Colonial Café, visit colonialcafe.com.

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Trivia Time: Into the Woods

The set of ECC Musical Theatre's production of Into the Woods

The set of ECC Musical Theatre’s production of Into the Woods

ECC Musical Theatre’s production of Into the Woods starts its second weekend of performances tonight so we thought it was a good time to brush on some of our Into the Woods trivia. Did you know that this is the third time this musical has been produced here at ECC?  It was the last musical performed in the ATC auditorium (now called the Spartan Auditorium) prior to the opening of the Arts Center building in 1994. It was performed in the Arts Center in 1999 on the Blizzard Theatre Stage. 15 years later, ECC Musical Theatre has headed “into the woods” once more.

This musical has been around for 28 years, so let’s take a look at some of its non-ECC production history:

  • Into the Woods debuted in the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego California, on December 4, 1986. James Lapine directed the original production (he also wrote the book) and the show ran for 50 performances.
  • When Into the Woods moved to Broadway, the majority of the performers from the first production appeared in the Broadway cast.
  • It premiered on Broadway on November 5, 1987.
  • Bernadette Peters played the Witch in the original Broadway run of  Into The Woods.
  • The original Broadway production of Into the Woods won several Tony Awards, including Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason in the role of Baker’s Wife), in a year dominated by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.
  • Into the Woods has been produced many times throughout the years including a 1988 US national tour, a 1990 West End production, a 1991 television production, a 1997 tenth anniversary concert, a 2002 Broadway revival, a 2010 London revival and as part of New York City’s outdoor Shakespeare in the Park series in 2012 (which featured Amy Adams in the role of Baker’s Wife).
  • The 2002 Broadway revival of Into the Woods was also directed by James Lapine and it won the Tony Award for Best Revival of Musical.
  • Walt Disney Pictures is producing a film adaptation of Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, and Chris Pine. Original book writer and director James Lapine wrote the screenplay.

The movie adaptation is set to open in December, 2014, but you don’t have to wait 8 months to get your musical fairytale fix: experience ECC Musical Theatre’s production this weekend! Into The Woods runs through March 2. For tickets and information, visit tickets.elgin.edu.

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A look inside American Grands: Part 2

American Grands

Another view of the American Grands stage

Today we’re posting the second of two pieces profiling American Grands participants’ experiences. Guest blogger Stu Ainsworth, who has been part of American Grands since the beginning and even has a copy of its very first poster, interviewed two year participant Jillian Chase about both her experience with American Grands and her experiences in music therapy as Arts Manager for Helping Hand Center in Countryside. Read on for Stu’s great interview with Jillian that touches on the amazing therapeutic benefits of music. Thank you to Stu and Jillian!

Q: Jillian, how many years have you performed in American Grands concerts?

A: This will be my second year performing in the concert. I moved to the area in the fall of 2012 and found out about from a friend.

Q: You work at the Helping Hand Center in Countryside as Arts Manager a role that involves art, music, and library programs. Can you tell us more about your role there? 

A: I am in charge of several major areas including curriculum development for the areas of art, drama, library and music. I am in direct leadership of the music program and the music therapist we have on staff. I work with her to help write goals for our clients, which we help them achieve through using music. I also run all of Helping Hand Center’s music performance groups […] My main work is with adults with developmental disabilities. Helping Hand also has a school for autism.

Q: What part does music play in your client’s programs and activities?

A: Music is a part of most of our client’s daily schedules […] Over half of our groups are music therapy focused groups, which means that the individuals in these groups, have specific goals that we address using music in various forms. We work on goals such as socialization, physical movement, self-expression, as well as other personal and specific needs. Some of our other groups focus solely on music as recreation.

Q: What benefits are derived from these programs?

A: In the last eight years, I have seen amazing things [result] from these programs in music. In our general music therapy groups, I have seen self-confidence flourish and for some appear when they have had none. I have seen clients who could not move their arms or had jerky movement, relax and move to/with the music. I have seen clients who have had a hard time socially, talk and make friends with their peers, or express their thoughts on a song. I have had amazing experiences with having clients come sit at the piano with me and just start to play. I accompany them based on what they are playing and a person who might have had a problem with behavior, might be able to express anger, sadness or happiness through playing it out on the piano. In our kids groups, I have seen a child be able to focus for five minutes, when in the past five seconds might have seemed difficult.

Q: Music Therapy Adaption is an activity/program in which you have developed unique expertise. Can you provide insight on how this applies to piano lessons and successes realized by many of your students?

A: The piano seems to be an instrument that can do amazing things […] When I first started, I was working with a colleague who had created an assessment with some of her music therapy colleagues that addressed the needs and amount of adaption that would be required for a child who had special needs […] I would work with these students on the basics of piano, like any teacher, but the approach had to be different. It was some trial and error at first […] it tends to be finding what method works best. I have adapted using colors, using numbers, using games, using many different things that work for each individual and for many it is repetition, or structure. Colors has worked very well for some. Each note is associated with a color, and you do this with an octave. You then create songs based on the colors with the note names, take out the note names, leave the colors, then finally take away the colors. Others do well with games. One child I worked with learned everything by playing a version of the game memory. He would match a pair and then go show me on the piano where it was and play it. It worked great. A child who might not be able to focus for five minutes, was after two lessons sitting through thirty minutes straight and was asking at the end if I could stay longer. His mother was amazed.

Thank you to Jillian for sharing her story with us. And to Jillian and the 461 other pianists that will be performing in American Grands XIX: break a leg this Saturday!

American Grands performances will take place on Saturday, January 25 at 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. For tickets and information, visit elgin.edu/arts.

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A look inside American Grands: Part 1

A view of the stage at American Grands

A view of the stage at American Grands

This month we welcome back guest blogger Stu Ainsworth  to Standing Room Only. Stu has been part of American Grands since the beginning and even has a copy of its very first poster. In recent years, he’s written pieces for us on the history of American Grands. This year Stu interviewed two American Grands participants  and today we’re posting the first of two pieces profiling these participants’ experiences. Read on for American Grands Elementary Coordinator and longtime participant Stephanie Spolum’s take on the performance experience of our younger participants. Thank you to Stu and Stephanie!

American Grands is a true gift for the more than 450 participating pianists, as well as sold-out houses containing their communities, families, and friends. So says Stephanie Spolum, who has played in American Grands concerts since 2008, and has had as many as 20 of her piano students involved annually.

This is the second year Stephanie has served as Director of Performance for Elementary Level players, the majority of whom are ages 7 and 8.  With a Bachelor of Science degree in piano performance from Michigan State, she will soon complete her work for a Master of Arts in Elementary Education. She has also been a private piano teacher in St. Charles for ten years and, as Music Director at St. Patrick’s Elementary School in St. Charles, she is quite aware of what motivates  young musicians. Shephanie shared some great insight into the joys and benefits of the American Grands performances for young musicians.

When asked about the benefits and skills young musicians gain by performing with other pianists at American Grands, Stephanie says “they learn to work as a team member, while preparing and presenting music with other players. They gain confidence when performing as part of an ensemble; [which is] especially important with pianists, who are commonly “solo performers”. They learn to budget personal time between sports, other school activities, homework and of course piano practice. There is also accountability to other pianists and their piano teacher.”

Stephanie adds “realizing the thrill of knowing you are performing before your parents, other family members, and hundreds of audience members at the American Grands concert and the unique thrill of recessing into the auditorium at the concert conclusion to the music of “Stars and Stripes Forever” as performed on 12 grand pianos and 24 skilled pianists. It’s very cool.”

When asked  if there will be any new music opportunities for the elementary players in this year’s program, Stephanie shared a neat new feature of this year’s performance. “For two very clever compositions a young player will be joined on the same bench by a very experienced player. What a thrill!”

This is American Grands 19th year of performances. Its over 450 pianists, ages 6 through 85, will be playing their hearts and fingers out on January 25 as they perform on 12 ebony grand pianos provided by Cordogan’s Pianoland before a full house of family and friends from communities throughout northeastern Illinois. Now that’s a shared experience that occurs only once a year, and only in Elgin during a fantastic American Grands concert.

American Grands performances will take place on Saturday, January 25 at 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. For tickets and information, visit elgin.edu/arts.

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