Look Ma, No Instrument! A workshop by Jackson Gillman, White Plains Library, NY. Nov. 15, 2014

Member Patricia Shih attended a recent workshop by fellow member Jackson Gillman and recorded her experiences here for us on the blog who weren’t able to attend.

"I perfected a seated posture which passed for intent listening, and Norwood never caught on.  Well, once he did…"
Jackson Gillman

I’ve known Jackson for many years through CMN and have always admired and respected his enormous talents. I was intrigued by the topic: how to deliver a story-song without musical accompaniment. Being a musician first and story-teller maybe third or fourth, and having at least one story that could use a little tweaking, I and my husband Stephen Fricker ventured up to White Plains from Long Island to glean what we could from Jackson’s wisdom and experience.

About fifteen people were there, including 4 children, ages 3-9. All were entertained and educated by the many stories that Jackson presented in his inimitable way. Simply by watching and listening to him we learned about pacing, dynamics, character, placement and so much more. These tools are important to singers/musicians too so I knew it would help me in my music work. It’s so valuable to watch a master artist at work, and to have a group of people to use as a sounding board before trying it out on a “real” audience. Artists know that songs and stories often morph as they gain life, until they reach what their creator might believe is their ultimate state. Near the end of the workshop Jackson asked if any of us had a story-song to share and was open to suggestions for improvement. My hand shot up and Jackson invited me up to the front, where I presented one that I hardly ever do in concert because I’ve never seen how it would fit into any of my “themes” for school shows; plus it’s fairly long. It’s called “Abacus” and is a true story, sort of a Chinese version of the John Henry legend, man vs. machine.

To start off with, I have to teach the audience a few Chinese words phonetically: jin bu jow ow bing bu how. I did not tell them what they meant in English as it is the “punch line” of the story. Then I launched in to the story song, which alternates between singing and speaking. After I was done Jackson and several audience members critiqued, giving me very helpful suggestions on why and how it could be improved. Staging is important; they felt the audience would get lost in or distracted by the Chinese, so I should write the words phonetically on a large board and also add the Chinese characters to enhance the educational value. Then we came up with the idea of having the punch line — what the Chinese words mean, which is the moral of the story — be hidden so I could show it at the very end.

Unfortunately, as what happens so often in these workshops, we ran out of time. So we consoled ourselves with the yummy snacks brought by the organizer Nancy Hershatter with help from Barbara Girt and Barbara Wright, and vowed we’d gather again as soon as possible, somewhere, some time! Big thanks to all involved in putting this together, including Rosemary Rasmussen, head of the children’s department at the White Plains Library, who secured the room for us.

Here’s a long-ago episode of a twice-daily TV show we hosted for a season, where we performed

“Abacus.”