KCS guest thinks musically, ‘Today and Everyday’

Singer/songwriter Dar Williams sings her song "Today and Everyday" for the students of Keene Central School on Monday, Oct. 2. (News photo — Sydney Emerson)

KEENE VALLEY — Dar Williams adjusted her guitar strap and microphone stand as the auditorium lights dimmed around her. A spotlight appeared. The audience fell silent and still as she played the opening notes of her song “Today and Everyday.”

This is typical for Williams; she has been a working musician for over 30 years and performed with the likes of Joan Baez and the Indigo Girls. The audience, however, was different than her usual fare — instead of her weekly late nights in theaters and wineries, it was 9 a.m. and she was singing for the 170 students of Keene Central School.

Back in May, Williams performed at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. Her audience included several faculty members from KCS, who daydreamed of Williams singing for their students. Kindergarten teacher Kathleen Morse and sixth grade teacher Megan Wellford took matters into their own hands.

“Megan is a force of nature,” Williams said. “So she came to my concert and she said ‘Oh, I wish you could come sing ‘Today and Everyday’ for my students.'”

Williams has visited schools before, performing for students and workshopping original songs with them. She connected Wellford with her manager, and they quickly set an October date for the school visit.

Keene Central School student Orra Sprague plays an original song on Dar Williams' guitar Monday, Oct. 2 as Williams and fellow student Elise Weckel watch. (News photo — Sydney Emerson)

“I think when people ask, it’s amazing,” Williams said. “Sometimes the next thing happens.”

After playing “Today and Everyday,” Williams asked for the lights in the school auditorium to be brought up. She explained the process of writing a song to the students — how she picks a topic that is interesting to her and tries to build her lyrics around that. Then, she asked the students to share what is interesting to them, what they would like to write a song about. Students shouted out their song ideas: fishing, pollution, sunsets and snapping turtles.

Williams responded to every student, strumming melodies and connecting ideas, giving each suggestion her full attention.

Laura Eldred, a former faculty member who helped facilitate the concert, appreciated how engaged Williams was with the students.

“She’s so encouraging,” Eldred said. “I think that was my big takeaway. … She just encourages them to be who they are, say what they want to say, no right or wrong. Just pure encouragement.”

Keene Central School students Charlotte Borden, Marie Bullock and Lucy Ayres listen to singer/songwriter Dar Williams talk about her songwriting process on Monday, Oct. 2. (News photo — Sydney Emerson)

In the end, she only had time for one more song — “The Babysitter’s Here,” off her 1993 album “The Honesty Room.”

After a round of applause, most students returned to class, save a select group of 12 fifth through eighth graders, who went across the hallway with Williams for a private 90-minute-long songwriting workshop. All of the students in the workshop have demonstrated an interest or talent in music.

“One of my teachers from a couple years ago, she knows I really love music and I love singing and she told me that (Williams) was coming and that there was going to be a workshop and we could sign up,” Orra Sprague, eighth grader, said. “I was like, yeah, I’d totally do that.”

Sprague, who has been playing music her “whole life” — her parents are musicians — was the first volunteer to sing for Williams. Borrowing Williams’ guitar, she played an original and as-yet-untitled ballad for the group. Later, Sprague said playing her song for a touring musician was the highlight of her day.

“It was really cool because I’ve never, like, played for anyone like that before,” Sprague said.

Singer/songwriter Dar Williams brainstorms song ideas with a workshop group of fifth through eighth graders at Keene Central School Monday, Oct. 2. (News photo — Sydney Emerson)

Other students took their turn standing inside the circle of desks and singing original songs for Williams and their peers. The group would then tell the students what they liked about the songs and make suggestions. All genres were represented, from country to rock to love songs. Williams, who also regularly facilitates songwriting workshops for adults, noticed a significant overlap in the students’ subject matter and her adult students’ inspiration.

“A lot of the stuff that comes up for 12- and 13-year-olds comes up for 71- and 72-year-olds,” she said.

Eldred said that the workshop was a new, creative way for students to express their emotions.

“Today I saw students say or sing things that they might not engage in regular conversation about,” she said. “They gave their feelings, and any time you can have a child express their feelings … it’s just such a great way for them to express themselves and say what they’re feeling where they might not say what they’re feeling.”

Working with students helps Williams’ creative process, as well. She said that watching students explore their creativity helps her remember the value of her own creativity and appreciate it anew. As for what the students got from the experience, Williams hoped that they could see an artistic career is not that far-fetched a goal.

Keene Central School student Oakley Spierer shares an original country-inspired song with singer/songwriter Dar Williams and the workshop group on Monday, Oct. 2. (News photo — Sydney Emerson)

“(Music) is my full-time job,” she said. “And I hope that, by witnessing what they’re doing now, they get a sense of the validity of what they are a part of when they step out and sing a song for me. Like, I’m out in the world doing this and now they are, too, and I’m witnessing that they’re participating in this thing that is art in the world.”

She credited the teachers at KCS with fostering the creative spark in their students.

“I’m so glad to see not only so much creativity in the kids, but the way that the teachers facilitate it around here,” Williams said. “It just seems like they’re in the right place at the right time to catch and encourage creativity in these kids that really sets them up for lifelong creating. I think that’s the trend in schools these days, but not in every school. It’s very alive here.”

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