Improvising the energy to make connections (October 6 newsletter)

Mountain Day came last Friday morning. It happens almost spontaneously — every fall, Williams College gives everyone a day to walk in the hills. Students caravan up to Stony Ledge or hike up from the valley, and they’ll sit in the grass with cider doughuts while the a cappella groups perform.

I used to love the energy. A cappella meant the students arranged the music themselves. They could choose the songs and set out the parts. It felt to me like humor and experiment — Sung Kim from my first-year entry singing Stevie Wonder, and voices invoking the gitano strum in Los Pesces en el Rio or the jazz swing of Manhattan Transfer.

I never sang, but I played in the student contradance band, and it was the first time I’d ever really played music with other people like that, in a small group where I could feel the currents of it. I remember looking across at Mount Greylock, playing Irish reels and doing my best to keep up with the fiddles.

We were new then, and we were learning as we went. We’d rehearse informally in odd corners. Sometimes someone would pick up a note and hold it, and someone else would play a few notes around it, a rhythm, a third up or down. We would improvise and try to find our way to harmonies. Most of us had never looked up from sheet music to play by ear, and we were sometimes shaky and unsure, and when the notes climbed and melded it was a rush to the head.

It was the first time I ever played the chord notes over the melody and heard the energy of the music shift — the first time I felt it in my breathing and my hands. It was something we made happen for ourselves.

And as the season shifts and we move toward an uncertain winter, I’m thinking of that feeling. Sometimes a good conversation can move like that. Even around an awkward start or two, you feel your way. You listen for the tone to uphold theirs, the thought to invite their thoughts, and your ideas coalesce until something connects between you and takes off, and takes you with it, into someplace unexpected and exposed and full of color.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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