Public Concert, Private Music

When Doug McLennan asked me to write this blog, he told me that the most successful ones connect the writing to the experiences the blogger has in daily life. I write about building arts communities, and for several weeks I’ve been thinking that the following story should be told. It certainly grows out of real life, and the lives involved are close to me and involve a musician whose artistry is legendary.

Last April my brother, Jim, copied an e mail he had sent to the great pianist, Andre Watts. Since it says everything better than I possibly could, I’ll just let the letter tell the story:

Andre Watts.jpgDear Mr. Watts,

For years our family has admired you, the gift of musical talent you have been given, and the obvious discipline you have followed to develop and maintain your skills. Your music has touched the hearts of many people, but you have touched the hearts and lives of our family in a special way.

Our family is deeply indebted to you because of an episode of Mr. Rogers you taped. I have a daughter (Jamie) who is 29 years old and is severely disabled and profoundly retarded. She has had many challenges; among them was the desire to eat. For years, Jamie did not want to eat and we struggled at every mealtime to feed her. Early on, we discovered that music either distracted her or stimulated her and so we began playing music as she would eat her food.

When you were on Mr. Rogers, we taped the original episode on a VCR. She watched that episode of Mr. Rogers over and over – both while she was eating and for her own personal enjoyment. She responds with joy, claps when the program begins, and hums as you play. It is her favorite music. Without exaggeration, she has probably seen the program well over 1000 times. It was rebroadcast a couple of years ago and we finally have it on a DVD. The tape was worn out!

We live in Greenwood which is on the south-side of Indianapolis, so we attend the ISO concerts as we can, especially when you are the guest artist. It seems like we are watching an old friend when you play.

On Mr. Rogers, you played a piece by Franz Liszt entitled “In a Dream”. I have searched and have been unable to find that piece. Could you give me any information about it? I would dearly love to purchase it.

Thank you for what you have done for Jamie and our family. You have unknowingly had a very significant role in her survival and daily life.

Not long afterward he received the following reply:

Greetings, and many thanks for your very special mail.

Your kind words were very affecting and I felt somehow emotionally connected to your daughter, Jamie. I am genuinely happy & humbled that I can play even a tiny positive part in your existence.

I am a very poor, disorganized correspondent, but I would like to send you a copy of this Liszt work. Please have a little patience with me; – it may take me a week or two to get it to you. I’m delighted that the piece (one of my favorite works of Liszt) has a place in your lives.
……………..all good wishes……………..

Time went by, and one day Jim noticed in the local paper that Watts would soon be performing nearby. Thus, the following e mail from my brother to Watts:

How ironic that I just heard TODAY that you are going to be playing October 25th at the Cristel DeHaan Fine Arts Center at the University of Indianapolis. That day happens to be both Jamie’s 30th birthday and my 61st birthday. We are planning to attend your concert.

The day came and I suddenly received the following message from Jim on my phone: Andre Watts has played two of the Mr. Rogers works so far, and a third is listed on the program.

Later another message appeared on my cell: He just played “En Reve” by Liszt. Jamie put her head up and listened and hummed her enjoyment after he concluded it. She loves him. This was, of course, the “In a Dream” title Jim mentioned in his initial letter to Watts.

After the concert, as they were leaving the hall, an usher came to them and said, “Mr. Watts would like you to come backstage in just a few moments if you are willing. He would like to meet you and Jamie.”

So, my final phone message was: You have a picture. And here it is, a photo from Jim’s cell phone:

Jamie Dodson and Andre Watts edited.jpgIt goes without saying that I could write a LOT here, but for the purposes of this blog, what strikes me about this story is the very fact that apparently Watts decided to make a private concert within a public recital. To speak directly to Jamie, he chose to look up his old Mr. Rogers program (Is it just me, or would that be a bit of an assignment?) and find a way to weave the works he played long ago on a television show for children into a concert with a completely different agenda. That he did so masterfully is not in doubt, but it is worth noting that he also did it silently. There was no public announcement, no drawing attention to an act of grace. The only members of the audience who knew were Jamie, her parents and two family friends who also attended.

Music is its own language, and, while that language is universal, it is also intensely personal. There are many ways of building communities around the arts. Sometimes you just do it very quietly – with a few people at a time.

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  1. says

    What a compelling story! You could really write volumes on how much of an impact music has on people, and the unexplainable connection each person has with their favorite music.
    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story. It’s incredibly inspiring and I hope we get to hear about these types of stories more often.

  2. Patrice Jordan says

    What an strengthening of the soul it is to do a secret act of kindness. I’m inspired by Mr. Watts to the same for my own soul. Thank you for giving me such good example.

  3. says

    As someone who blogs daily for WMRA public radio in Virginia, I love what you have to say about the profound being best clothed in personal story. Thanks both for the story, and for leaving the story alone. I’m very, very glad to have found your blog.

  4. says

    As someone who blogs daily for WMRA public radio in Virginia, I love what you have to say about the profound being best clothed in personal story. Thanks both for the story, and for leaving the story alone. I’m very, very glad to have found your blog.

  5. Barbara Hall says

    What an unbelievable story. Thank you for sharing it. I am greatly moved by the simplicity of Andre Watts’ gift to Jamie. What a wonderful gift. Thank you.

  6. Rena Fruchter says

    This is a wonderful and powerful story, and typical of how Andre Watts lives his life as a musician and a human being.
    Despite his busy life as a world-renowned international artist, Andre Watts has never lost sight of the role of music in healing on both a physical and emotional level. His philosophy as an artist is one of complete communication–reaching across the stage, into the audience, right into the hearts and minds of his listeners.
    When we created Music For All Seasons( nearly 20 years ago, Andre Watts, an old friend from our Philadelphia childhood days, was one of the first artists to join our Board of Advisors. The organization provides “professional performances for hope and healing,” and is active in five states, taking live music into all types of facilities where people are confined. Andre Watts’ speaks eloquently about the impact music has on all of us, and he is devoted to sharing his art with people not only inside the concert hall but in many other settings where he can touch people.

  7. Jannis says

    I have to clear my eyes to write this…this word picture you shared will be with me a lifetime!
    Thank you for connecting all the dots for me!

  8. Sue Willbanks says

    What a beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. It just goes to show you that sometimes you don’t realize the effect you can have in someone’s life; someone you don’t even know and might never meet. This time they did meet. Truly inspiring.

  9. says

    A couple of years ago we were fortunate enough to attend a Music for All Seasons “Conversations” evening featuring Andre Watts (for more on MFAS, see Rena Fruchter’s remarks below). In our brief conversation with him afterwards, he could not have been warmer or more engaging.
    We were therefore all the more moved by this account of his private gesture of humanity. Thank you for letting us know of it.
    Regarding his performance on Mr. Rogers that has so affected Jamie, we were delighted to find that two of the pieces from that episode are on YouTube: Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary’ Etude, — and Schubert’s ‘Musical Moments,’ the latter one of the first pieces Watts learned as a child, as he recounts — –.)
    Louis Torres & Michelle Marder Kamhi

  10. says

    I love everyone involved in this story — may the world continue to be filled with such people. If you find “En Reve,” please consider passing on your information — I would love to hear it and to imagine Jamie’s delight.
    Thank you.

  11. says

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. Mr Watts is an example for all of us and it these poignant moments that make life it’s best. When we give of ourselves we truly live. My face is smiling and my heart is singing!

  12. says

    The way an organization views itself may be one of the most important factors contributing to its success or failure. While many orchestras simply exist in their community, the Nashville Symphony seems to have gone far beyond that, actually becoming a part of the soul of Nashville, already the Music City.

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