May 17, 2023
I’ve written before about Dr. Jee-Hoon Krska and the wonderful non-profit organization she founded in 2016, Keys 2 Success, in her words: “to teach classical piano to kids growing up in Newark attending public school and living in public housing.” The mission of Keys 2 Success is “to bring quality music education to students starting in Pre-K in the most underserved areas of Newark. Our free, daily piano lessons are delivered in a group setting in the students’ own environment, where teachers and volunteers work to remove barriers and support students as they develop into future leaders.”
The Discovery Orchestra began collaborating with Keys 2 Success first by offering free tickets to our Discovery Concerts at Drew University. With the onset of the Covid Pandemic, we offered Keys 2 Success students virtual listening interactions on Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals via Zoom. (See my blog post of December 15th 2020, Five Animals At A Time.)
On Monday, May 8th we were very happy to be part of a multifaceted event, presented by both organizations, entitled Walk With Me: Discover The Montgomery Variations, held at the Rock Christian Fellowship on Ferry Street in Newark. I really don’t know where to begin.
After introductions by Jee-Hoon and Discovery Orchestra Executive Director Rick Kaller, students from the program recited aloud the moving poem I, Too by Langston Hughes. Then, after another group recitation, Keys 2 Success Board Member Dr. Marcia Heard spoke about the historical context surrounding the composition of Montgomery Variations, a work for symphony orchestra by Black American composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972). This powerful score commemorates important moments in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s – among them the decision in 1955 by the Black population of Montgomery, Alabama to boycott the public transportation system in the wake of the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. Another incident vividly portrayed in the composition is the 1963 Sunday morning bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which took the lives of four young Black girls.
After Dr. Heard spoke, I presented one of my music listening interactions with the audience of about sixty individuals made up of the students from Jee-Hoon’s program, their parents and other family members, invited guests, and several Keys 2 Success and Discovery Orchestra Board Members. I chose to highlight the first movement of Montgomery Variations, entitled The Decision. All seven movements are based on the spiritual I Want Jesus to Walk With Me, so I began the session by playing a recording of blues artist Eric Bibb singing this poignant music as he accompanies himself on the guitar. This served to engage all in the room in the listening process, and from there we proceeded to discover more about the musical workings of that first variation, The Decision.
Also included in the afternoon’s schedule was a short interview which I conducted with Newark composer Elijah Souels and musician, educator and author Tricia Tunstall. Elijah and Tricia are currently working on a joint project to create and publish elementary piano pedagogy materials featuring music by Black composers. They had much of interest to say about this, and I was sorry we had a limited amount of time, but…
The highlight of the day for me came when the Keys 2 Success students sat at their keyboards and played a composition written for them by Elijah Souels. This music was Elijah’s original take on Margaret Bonds’ composition! After the keyboard performance, the entire room full of people enthusiastically sang Lift Every Voice and Sing, with the students accompanying (and singing) from their keyboards. At the conclusion I received, gave and witnessed more hugs than at any time since the pre-Covid era. You had to be there!