[Our friends Martin and Brian have asked me to drop the old phonograph needle on some of their tunes, perhaps some lesser known, and report back to everyone. This month is a tangent.]
Folks who follow Switchback see occasional dates on their schedule marked “Outreach Program.” Let’s go close-up with one of those, one that happened in October in Springfield, Illinois.
The Hope Institute for Children and Families provides educational and residential services to children facing extraordinary cognitive, physical and emotional challenges. Switchback came for a week-long residency, everything from one-on-one engagement to an all-school concert to the finish their time there.
This outreach program was quite different from a one-show gig. To plan their time, Martin McCormack and Brian FitzGerald worked with Hope’s music therapist for months leading up to their week at the school. Alisabeth Hopper helped the band create a curriculum, a compendium of lesson plans to be piloted at her Hope Learning Center. Full of details, activities, aims and goals this “HopeWork” is designed to be used in part or whole at other facilities by other musical performers.
Then, of course, there are all the fun parts.
About 30 youngsters arrive in a smallish space along with half a dozen staff. Marty and Brian have met all these folks earlier in the week, and most of today's songs have been sung in smaller classroom rehearsals. With the band plugged in just a few feet from the front row, first up is a medley of sing-alongs working off the same tune. It’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” easily oozing into “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” with a smooth segue into “The ABC Song” where Marty asks Brian if he’s truly confident of the lyrics.
Songs throughout this half-hour session start and end gently, the idea being to stimulate but not over-stimulate Hope’s students.
Next up, so to speak, is “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with full-throat audience participation on the “One, two, three strikes you’re out!” line.
Marty then reminds the students they are working on “White Christmas” for their upcoming holiday show so they should give that one a try. The room is full of singing and signing the familiar December-dream carol. Later the audience is asked for a song suggestion. It’s “Jingle Bells” with bells handed out and enthusiastic response to the shouted “Hey!” with Brian upping the tempo each time around on his new mandolin.
Most of us have witnessed Switchback absorb energy from their audiences. That is not different here with the youngsters’ encouragements ranging from small to dramatic. One Hope staff member commented that among performers at the school Brian and Martin are clearly more interactive and that they listen for what the students want.
Switchback did an instrumental so the audience could be the percussion section, slapping out beats on their thighs. It was just a strum-along, but Brian, always the creator, started whipping off licks on his Taylor M4-CE that would fly on any stage.
With the end near, Switchback led the singing of that tender and saucy tale of an errant meatball sneezed into oblivion - “On Top of Spaghetti” - to the delight of all.
After a few small-group photos with much hugging and many smiles, Switchback finished with Hope’s traditional good-bye song and its lyric “Music is over until next time.” Then Marty signs off with a warning about the next day’s closing concert: “There might be dancing!”
Here is the full disclosure section. My lovely wife Sheila Walk heads our Springfield Area Arts Council which funded this whole wonderful week by hiring Switchback and Hope’s music therapist. Back years ago when I first met Martin and Brian, they were fresh from a half-day at this same Hope Institute. Over lunch Marty said Switchback wanted to be “the house band for Hope.” Pretty damned endearing. Sheila says it took a few years and a generous bequest, but this year she made it happen.
Doug Kamholz is an itinerant washboard player who has freelanced for the New York Times, Washington Post and many lesser media. His most honest work was as a pig farmer in central Illinois, where he now lives and occasionally makes dinner for Switchback.
American Roots & Celtic Soul