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Last week Helena students from Project for Alternative Learning and Cottonwood Agile Learning Center met with the artists of American Patchwork Quartet, a group of highly accomplished musicians who just recently began to collaborate with one another. Their mission: To reclaim the immigrant soul of American roots music.

Students were particularly interested in how Falu Shah, born in India, came to work on these traditional folk music pieces and why the group was interested in mixing these seemingly disparate sounds. Clay and Clarence told a story about hearing Falu sing and recognizing something within the emotional energy of her voice that reminded them of the folk music from Clay’s own home in Appalachia. Falu then introduced the students to the structure and culture of music in India. She shared a series of ragas (and even taught us an ‘easy’ one that she compared to the ABC’s), explaining that each one correlates to a certain time of the day and serves a specific emotional purpose. She also shared that often music from mountain cultures shares emotional qualities, and that she recognized the landscape of American roots music when Clay first asked her to think about singing with him.

My favorite moment in the workshops was when a student asked Falu about what he thought sounded like vibrato in her voice. She explained what microtones are, demonstrating her impressive vocal technique, and then told us that she had to learn how to harmonize in order to work with this group, because harmony as a concept does not exist in Indian music. The virtuoso of her demonstration combined with the humility of her description of learning a new skill stood out as such a wonderful example of having a growth mindset. She’s a Grammy-nominated musician, and is still learning and struggling with new concepts, still pushing herself beyond her comfort zone. What a great reminder to aspiring artists, or learners of any kind.

Of course, there is also something lovely symbolically about the idea of learning to harmonize musically through a project that aims to inspire cultural harmony within our diverse and increasingly divided country.

I wonder if Clay and Clarence will be able to sing with microtones next time we see them…?

Amy Shike of Cottonwood Agile Learning Center says, “Attending the American Patchwork Quartet workshop inspired our students to engage in an insightful conversation about the role of music in their lives in the hours following the workshop. I’m glad the experience challenged these young people to think critically about their interests and the culture they’ve been raised in.”

Thanks to Blue Cross Blue Shield Montana for their generous support of our Arts Education programs!

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