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:
Dear 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:
It 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.