Monday, August 26, 2013

The Artist and the Storyteller and the Audience

Right after attending the 5:00 PM Saturday service at the church I belong to (it's got four others on Sunday as well as a Wednesday mid-month service), I went right back to Omaha's Memorial participate in a storytelling session conducted by one of the best storytellers around, none other than Rita Paskowitz. 

In fact, I arrived at the park at 6:30 PM...because I thought it foolish to turn around and go home after church, only to have to come back to the park right afterwards. 

When I got back to Memorial Park, a bunch of teenagers- mostly from area high schools like Creighton Prep, Marian, and Mount Michael- brought the park's south stairs back to life with their presence.

The first teenager to greet me was a girl named Liz...and I was floored that she recognized me and called me by my name. was cool. 

Eventually, Liz wanted to know if I played the piano.

After I told Liz and her friends "Yes," I went right to the park's H.P. Nelson upright and tried to think of something today's high-school-age students might like.

One of these days, I'm going to up and learn some of Rihanna's, Katy Perry's, Bruno Mars', Maroon 5's, Lady Gaga's, and Nicky Minaj's stuff...among that by other acts. (I really do like some of today's hits...especially Bruno's latest one, "Treasure.")

Right now, the most recent cut I can play (and get away with it) is..."Purple Rain."

So I served up that 1984 Prince monster.

Well...they thought it was cool.  

After that, I dipped into my 1950s-1960s-1970s vault and ragged up as many hits from those three decades as I could do in about a half hour. (And during that half hour, Rita made it to Memorial Park...along with "PMIY's" Sally Reay and Natalie Shaw, the development coordinator for the Omaha Creative Institute.)

One thing I'm trying to take from the "Play Me, I'm Yours" experience is: "You've got to know your audience!" That's why I started out with Prince instead of Scott Joplin...almost 24 hours after launching my Sweatshop Gallery session with a blues rather than a rag. (At Sweatshop, I was playing for people who could've been Liz' older siblings.)  

Speaking of Liz...sometime during the half hour, the other students encouraged her to try out the ol' upright. 

Well, she did.

And it was cool.

Then, at 7:05 PM, it was storytelling time...and we got a chance to hear a classical piece by Lori Elliott-Bartle, the very artist who painted the very H.P. Nelson upright she was playing. (I thought Lori did a nice, nice job at the 88s.)

Rita introduced Lori to the audience, and afterwards, Lori talked about just how she came to turning what had been a plain old 1910s upright into a "Garden Party" piano. 

This set the stage for Rita to encourage those of us in the audience to share our experiences with trying to learn to play the piano...or wanting to learn the ivories, but not getting parental (or any other kind of) support...or in the case of one participant, having to choose playing the piano or playing softball as a teenager.

Some of the storytelling session's participants were in elementary school...and Rita encouraged those who wanted to show their piano skills to do just that. 

As a result, we got to hear from youngsters such as Jack,
and Lorenzo. (Lorenzo's tune even made it to

The next portion of the session saw Rita seek our stories about what it's like to come to Memorial Park, the site of an annual Independence Day concert featuring the rock acts the Katy Perrys and Bruno Marses learned their craft from.

Rita's own story came from one of her experiences as a student at the U of Nebraska at Omaha. This was during a 1970s Vietnam War protest at that very park...and it culminated in the only time Rita came face to face with a gun pointed in her direction.

It was a police officer's gun.

And it WASN'T cool.

A cool experience about a park I set foot in for the first time in my life only because of "Play Me" came from the woman on my left, Hannah...who participated in tai chi sessions at Memorial until recently. 

Hannah talked about how tai chi demands so much discipline that you can't even swat at a fly if it comes your way. You've got to keep your eyes on the prize.

In a word: Perseverance.  

Next, Rita asked each of us for a word that describes "Play Me, I'm Yours." (The word "fun" won out.)

The fun multiplied when Rita had those "pianophobic" adults in the crowd come up in hit one note the same time. (A third quintet got to hit two notes the same time.)

Lori went back to the piano to cap off the session by delivering "Maple Leaf Rag."

Thought that was cool. 

Lots more cool stuff took place afterwards, including a succession of pianists trying out ol' H.P. 

One of them was a cyclist who proved that you CAN play "Heart and Soul" by yourself.
Another was a birthday girl, Emily...who one-fingered the intro to "When the Saints Go Marching In." (And that was only because I learned the lesson George taught me that afternoon: "Get someone to actually touch a piano key!")

Lori's hubby John got into the act with a one-handed "Oh Susanna."
A teenage girl knocked out the intro to Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in G Minor," one of the coolest classical pieces ever written. (Well, I like to think so!)

A little girl named Amelia, a grown man named Grady (he and his wife Kathleen brought their German Shepherds with them), and I delivered some ragtime. (But I was the only one of the threesome who didn't tackle "The Entertainer." That's going to be later this fortnight.)

Matter of fact, with his version of "The Entertainer," Grady hit the last note of the night.

I came out of Memorial Park with some great memories, some new buddies (well, I like to think so!), and...I'm fired up and ready to go!

Ready to go to Stinson Park, that is.  

And that's way cool.

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