Up Up with People: Philly’s LiveConnections adds inclusion to its public service mission statement

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Movement artist Shavon Norris and students from Our Lady of Confidence create movements that will accompany the lyrics of LiveConnections’ new, fully accessible choral music | photo by LiveConnections staff

Melinda Steffy, Executive Director of LiveConnections, sounds winded when we speak. Not because she has scaled a thousand steps and is catching her breath. Rather, it is because Steffy is crossing T’s and dotting I’s on every detail going into A Song Everyone Can Sing: a Community Sing,  a grand communal event on Sunday, March 10, at the Temple Performing Arts Center that acts as the centerpiece of LiveConnections’ 10th season.  Along with its usual mission of community building and inspired education through the act of collaborative live music making, the not-for-profit LiveConnections — founded in 2008 by Hal Real from World Café Live, a home to the LiveConnections Presents concert series — brings accessibility and inclusion into its socially responsible mix with A Song Everyone Can Sing.

This large scale, original choral work meant to welcome people with diverse abilities to participate — be it singing or moving — has bound together the talents of Paul Smith and his a cappella ensemble VOCES8, composer Jay Fluellen, movement artist Shavon Norris, poet Daniel Simpson, Drexel University’s ExCITe Center, accessibility leader Art-Reach, and choirs from Merakey Behavioral Health, Northeast High School, Our Lady of Confidence Day School and Overbrook School for the Blind since 2017.

“Our mission is to find unique and welcoming partnerships, and to get as many people as possible to know and feel the joy of singing,” said VOCES8’s Paul Smith, dodging a loud public announcement system at an airport in Kansas City. “When we found out we could work in Philadelphia with LiveConnections on just that mission, it was too good of an opportunity. And this concert on the 10th will be a joyous affair.”

Steffy, a musician and visual artist, became interested in the space where the arts can create social and cultural change, and found LIveConnections as a home for those goals and values. “I thought I would be a social worker or a teacher,” she said. “But what I truly loved is how and when music can become part of a conversation to help people and improve the world. Music is a powerful tool, when there is a situation where change can happen.”

LiveConnections was, and is, an exquisite clearing house for Steffy’s goals, and those of the wide scale board, staff and collaborators from all walks of the arts who choose to make events — be it through LiveConnections Presents Concerts or local teaching and community outreach initiatives.  “LiveConnections started in response to a time when Philly schools were cutting music education programs from its budgets,” said Steffy. “There was interest in saying what can we, this particular group of artists, educators and entrepreneurs, do about it? So we were about education, but not training or teaching how to play instruments. Our focus, or idea, is that music is a central part of our experience, how we express ourselves, and when we use it to the best of our ability, we can build bridges and tear down barriers. That’s the ideal of all LiveConnections ventures, this new event included.”

To that end, A Song Everyone Can Sing: a Community Sing casts a wide net, and looks at how people who are often  excluded from the music experience, can be part and parcel of the music making process: how can anyone enter the performance space in a way that is both particular to who each performer is, be they blind or with special needs.

The very nature of “A Song Everyone Can Sing: a Community Sing” challenged Paul Smith and tested the abilities of his a cappela troupe. Having grown up as a chorister at Westminster Abbey, the Brit-born Smith claimed that music is both a ”formal, and fast-paced” thing, as well as a successful social enterprise. That environment has allowed him and VOCES8 the luxury of making and/or finding projects which “pull the stories” from those they work with, and whip the tales into something audacious and new.

Take “A Song Everyone Can Sing,” for example. Here, Smith stated, it is the people performing this choral work through Live Connections who are telling their tales, and having their lives built into this grand musical and vocal score with lyrics courtesy blind Philadelphia poet Daniel Simpson.

“I’ve been thrilled to start working this way, and the opportunity that I have with all these different choirs – whether it be a blind choir, an adult learning center – has been amazing,” said Smith. “Each of the these different Philadelphia groups, be it the Merakey Behavioral Health center or the Overbrook School for the Blind encourages us to learn with those students. We connect physically every time that I get up there to conduct the blind choir  in rehearsal. I shake each and every one of their hands,” he added, speaking about relying on touch, rather than sight. “That would not happen in a usual singing environment. Touching them each time, making that connection is deeply moving.”

That seems to be what LiveConnections is all about.

LiveConnections’ A Song Everyone Can Sing takes place Sunday, March 10th at the Temple Performing Arts Center. Tickets and more information on the show, as well as future LiveConnections events, can be found here.

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