Bach, Crankies & Inspiration in Newport

marji dan library

“What a beautiful sound. I want to take a bath in it.”

“Imagine this: a horse went to the barber to have his haircut…he would be so sad to find out how little of it you are using!”

“Making big bows is like a one-armed dance.”

These are samples of insights, explanations, and exclamations I captured in my notebook as I observed Ealain McMullin teach violin lessons to her Newport String Project students on a Monday afternoon in early December. I’ve known Ealain for more than ten years, but until early December I’d never watched her teach. Now I can add to my list of things I admire about her: not only is she a great friend, fabulous violinist, and visual artist extraordinaire, she is an organized, funny, sweet, enthusiastic teacher with an artillery of awesome materials and memorable sayings. It shall come as no surprise that I am not the only one who admires this about her. Throughout the afternoon, students came in for their lessons professing how much they love their lessons, and asking to stay and watch each other learn. Perhaps more powerful than these verbal statements of happiness were the students’ beautiful sounds, the sparkles in their eyes, the energy in their stances, their readiness to connect with their teacher, their peers, their instrument and the music at hand. For me, a long-time music teacher, these were guarantees that Ealain’s students are primed.

Earlier in the afternoon I had sat in on Newport String Project’s general music class, which includes a “paper violin” component (a year-long process in which beginning students make and care for an ersatz violin before being endowed with the responsibility of caring for and playing the real deal). I was impressed by the clarity and humanity with which Ealain set limits and expanded possibilities for these very young students, and how aware and welcoming the children seemed to be of the high expectations she and Emmy held for them. For instance, when one wiggly boy’s paper violin wandered out of rest position, all Ealain had to do was look at him and he handed it to her, fully aware that he hadn’t fulfilled his end of the instrument care bargain. Rather than seem ashamed or angry, he seemed eager as he reached out for Ealain’s help, knowing that in the very near future he would have another chance to demonstrate to her, to himself, and to his class his ability and desire to protect the fragile instrument.

In my daily life as a teaching artist, I am usually so busy, I don’t have the opportunity to observe my peers at work, so this hour of watching Ealain teach with such grace and ingenuity was extremely powerful for me. During that time, I collected fresh turns of phrase to describe the use of the bow and quality of sound; I discovered some lesser-known, wonderful teaching repertoire and original educational tools (all of them beautifully hand-sewn, hand-cut, or calligraphed, of course!) and took notes on classroom management methods. More importantly, though, my appreciation and understanding of the student – teacher relationship was refreshed. My belief that teaching is a fine art, and a pursuit of idealism and democracy, was rekindled.

After these observations, I met with Newport String Project’s second and third year and launched with them a two-part multimedia “active listening” project. For me, “active listening” means breaking down barriers between listener and performer, and listeners taking a creative, integral role in live music-making. That day’s active listening involved translating a listening experience into visual art onto a very long, shared banner of drawing paper. How did this play out? First, I performed the Largo movement from J.S. Bach’s C Major Sonata and the students drew pictures in crayon of scenes, characters, objects, and situations that the music called to mind. What did my performance of Bach call to mind? Winged dinosaurs. Mountaintop views. Camping trips. Abstract shapes and gestures. Friendship. Sunsets, and much, much more. After that, I played the movement again and, for lack of a less touchy-feely way of describing it, they “painted their feelings” over the top of the crayon drawings, choosing and mixing tints of watercolor they associated with the feelings they experienced while listening. What this step actually ended up being: a free-for-all watercolor deluge. Puddles and rivers of watercolor. One student said to me, between very squishy daubs of greenish blue: “At school we aren’t allowed to mix the watercolors. THIS IS A VERY BIG DAY FOR US.”


So…we let that sopping giant noodle of paper dry for 48 hours, and then on Wednesday we added a third layer: each student took responsibility for the calligraphing of one word of Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Gracias, Violines”. Then…magically…that listening-inspired artwork came to life and started moving, to the live accompaniment of Bach’s Largo. What actually happened: the banner was rolled into a scroll, which was spooled across a frame from one rotating dowel to another, thus turning the banner into a mechanical moving picture. This hard-to-explain picture-moving contraption is actually a folk performance art tradition called the “cranky” (if you don’t believe me, look up “cranky art” on YouTube) and the Newport String Project cranky couldn’t have turned out more beautifully in my imagination.


It was a great honor and freedom to be able to share my riskiest, wackiest workshop idea on my teaching artistry bucket list. I can’t wait to try it with other participants; in fact, I’ll be sharing it with a bunch of arts educators at Harvard in May!

Outside of this time spent with students, Emmy, Ealain, and I took turns working with Dan Sedgwick (my husband and pianist) on three different works of chamber music: Mozart’s A Major Sonata K. 526 (me), Brahms’ G Major Sonata, Op. 78 (Emmy), and Jon Deak’s comic chamber music drama, the Wager at the El Dorado Saloon (Ealain), which included bassist Joe Bentley. These rehearsals culminated in a concert for a full house of rapt, appreciative listeners at the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport. It was a joy to spend the week in musical exchange with kindred musical spirits, and to live, work, and perform in their magical stomping grounds.

As food and shelter are always an artist’s greatest concern, it bears mentioning that while in Rhode Island, Dan and I were ensconced in warmth and comfort and ate incredibly well. We ingested all the Seven Stars and White Electric baked goods and coffee you could ever dream of at Ealain and Jesse’s; we ate the world’s most delicious chili at Emmy’s house, made by her husband Piero; we enjoyed a home-cooked dinner and great conversation with Dominique and Tom in Newport. We were housed by the most gracious and generous of hosts, in two great locales: for the first half of the week, Ealain and Jesse treated us to comfort, cat antics, and composer biographies in funky Providence; for the latter half of the week Julie Smith provided us with sun-filled quarters, wide-ranging conversation, and oil painting lessons in picturesque Newport.

Dan and I wax nostalgic regularly about our week of music, food, ideas, respite, and community in Rhode Island. Thank you, Emmy and Ealain, and everyone who helps make Newport String Project happen.