Duluth's Gaelynn Lea has led a widely-traveled life since winning NPR's Tiny Desk Concert competition in March of 2016. Her Tiny Desk appearance a few weeks later sparked wide interest, enough to set off nearly nonstop touring since. In April 2016, she sang her haunting signature song Someday We'll Linger in the Sun at Classical MPR's Bring the Sing event in Duluth with some three-hundred others harmonizing behind her. (Bring the Sing returns to Duluth next Saturday, and to Collegeville on April 26.)
Lea also served as one of Classical MPR's 2016-17 Class Notes Artists — Minnesota musicians who travel to schools throughout the state, bringing performances and presentations into classrooms and gymnasiums for young audiences who often wouldn't otherwise get to experience live music-making.
Each of this year's Class Notes Artists have also been visiting our studios throughout March for performances and conversation with classical host and Program Director Julie Amacher. You can hear Gaelynn Lea's appearance on Tuesday, March 28th at 8:45 a.m. and thereafter at ClassicalMPR.org.
I was lucky enough to travel with Lea and her intrepid husband Paul Tressler through the northern part of the state last fall. Starting in East Grand Forks, we travelled west to east, wrapping up at schools in Bemidji and on the Leech Lake Reservation.
Having seen her perform, I knew Lea would sing beautifully; her voice is both fervent and ethereal, a blend perfectly suited to the Celtic and folk styles she favors. I wasn't as prepared for Lea's teaching chops or for the immediate rapport she struck up with elementary and middle school students, some from communities faced with stark inequities and challenges.
Lea is used to challenge. She has lived with a type of osteogenesis imperfecta, more commonly known as brittle bone disease, since infancy. It confines her to a wheelchair (which she maneuvers with zippy ease) and means that she holds her violin against her diminutive frame as though it were a cello. The technique was devised by a teacher who recognized Lea's musical talent as a child, and who helped spark what became her own lifelong passion for teaching.
Lea also refers to herself as a disability activist. She talks about brittle bone disease as part of her presentations with the same disarming candor as she performs her songs, whose themes often reflect it in some way. Someday We'll Linger in the Sun voices the terror she felt over a surgery that went awry ("It was the most scared I've ever been") and how her husband Paul's love got her through its aftermath. Another of her song's lyrics — "Bird, why do you sing? / Fate has clipped your wings" — celebrates joy in spite of adversity.
Before she performed Someday at Cass Lake Elementary School, she asked the students to pay close attention to how it made them feel. "There's often so much emotion in the classrooms," she says. When she asked her young audience to share its responses, one boy talked about his dog having been hit by a car. Another student, a girl, said it reminded her of autumn and flowers. Lea repeated back and affirmed each child's response one by one, pointing out how music helps channel emotions that are hard to express in words alone.
At the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School near the Leech Lake Reservation, a truly powerful exchange took place between Lea and the school's multitribal students. After two back-to-back presentations, an elder explained that they wanted to honor and thank her with a Grass Dance, a style of pow wow originating in the Northern Plains. A photo of Lea — rapt, with arms outstretched to the dancers — that appeared with an article in the Bemidji Pioneer Press the following day speaks for itself. After it grass dance, Lea lingered another half hour to talk with the students and let them take selfies with her.