Music nonprofit wants to help locals unite in song

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MIMA, a music nonprofit originally started in New York City, opened a chapter here in February and wants to engage the community in collaborative workshops. Photo: Murphy Thibodeau MIMA, a music nonprofit originally started in New York City, opened a chapter here in February and wants to engage the community in collaborative workshops. Photo: Murphy Thibodeau

Rappity rap, rappity rap.

A 13-year-old tapped out a beat on a metal folding chair. Rappity rap, rappity rap. Dressed in black jeans, black untied high tops and a black Michael Jordan jersey over a white undershirt, he slumped forward, his restless fingers wandering over the edge of his chair, his gaze wandering up to the stained glass windows in the Music Resource Center’s chapel space on Ridge Street.

He was in the zone. Rappity rap, rappity rap, rappity rap.

After a minute, another boy—about 7 years old and wearing a brown Phish T-shirt—started tapping the seat of his own folding chair. Tap. Tap tap. Tap. Tap tap.

Two girls across the circle talked about swimming, and Charlottesville musician Julia J. von Briesen started chanting “breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle, backstroke.” Soon, all 20 people in the circle—children, teens and adults—stood, stomping and clapping in time to her chant.

They were improvising.

This lasted about 60 seconds before music teacher Kevin Wenzel led them to a new, different rhythm. “Goom-ba! Goom-ba!” he chanted, encouraging them to stomp their right foot then their left, to chant louder and louder before layering on “bunnybunny, BUNNYbunny” in double time.

The louder they shouted, the more confident they seemed. They weren’t caught up in making the music sound good; they didn’t stop and start over if someone missed a beat, they just continued on. They were creating and living together in that moment. Such is the power of improvisational music.

That creative flame is what MIMA, a New York City-based music education nonprofit new to the Charlottesville arts scene, has sought to ignite since its origin in 2000. MIMA’s trained teachers run programs for underserved schools and at-risk youth in Newark, New Jersey, and New York City and have held community music workshops in Cyprus, Nepal, Brazil and other cities and towns around the world.

“So often, we hit on moments that don’t feel good or sound good—in life, not just in music,” says MIMA founding board member Adam Nemett. “The biggest thing I’ve learned from [improvisational music] is that, in those moments, rather than curling up in a ball and saying, ‘It’s over,’ ask, ‘How do we improvise? How do we bend it back into tune or make it work?’” This is the underlying sensibility of the MIMA Method.

The method doesn’t rely on musical instruments or a set songbook. Workshop participants don’t even need musical ability or experience, says Nemett, they just have to show up.

The MIMA curriculum is a framework designed to “draw out the unique rhythms, melodies and lyrics that make sense for [an individual] community or environment,” says Nemett. “Harlem sounds like Harlem, Nepal sounds like Nepal.” And Charlottesville sounds like Charlottesville. “Shady Days,” the song MIMA campers created at the MRC workshop, is a keyboard pop tune with all-ages vocals and R&B drumbeats pumping through saxophone veins; it’s about escaping the intense heat of Charlottesville summer by seeking out the cool shade and waiting for nightfall.

“We do find—and this is a bit cheesy to say—that music is a universal language. People from different cultures, different ages, different languages can keep a beat together,” Nemett says while tapping out a beat on his chest. We can make music with our bodies, without instruments, “at any age, and make something beautiful happen,” he says.

Longtime MIMA music teacher Wenzel, who led that MRC community songwriting workshop, takes it even further, saying that “music is what it means to be human, and being human means interacting and being with others. As a method of communication, a space to experiment and a way of creating emotional bonds between others, creating music together is a human experience that builds empathy and understanding of other people unlike [anything] I have ever experienced.”

That’s why with the MIMA Method, teaching music skills—which already live within us—is secondary to teaching creativity, confidence and collaboration, says Nemett.

Charlottesville seemed like a logical place to establish a new chapter, adds Nemett, who moved to town in 2013 and helped launch the local chapter in February of this year. It is, after all, a town known for its music—there’s jazz at Miller’s, country at the Jefferson, indie at the Tea Bazaar, busking on the Mall and so on. “But there’s so much more that could be supported here,” says Nemett. He knows that there’s music being made in bedrooms, basements and living rooms all over town. People sing together in church, in the car and on their porches.

Nemett hopes that MIMA Charlottesville can help support music and music programs all over central Virginia—in elementary, middle and high schools, in community spaces like the MRC, in adult residential communities like Innisfree Village and through the International Rescue Committee, to name just a few.

MIMA programs are relatively inexpensive to produce, but for schools or organizations that can’t fully afford a program, there’s usually grant money available, says Nemett. Programs are always free for participants, because what’s important is that people—all people—come together to make music and learn the power of improvisation.

After just three MIMA sessions at the MRC, at least one local camper had picked up on that power. Following the group improv session, a young girl with braided hair and wearing beat-up silver sneakers told me that when her older siblings won’t play with her, she plays the piano to keep herself company. I asked her how music makes her feel, and she replied, “It’s just, like, going with it,” before dashing off to watch another camper set up a drum kit, humming the melody to “Shady Days” as she ran.

–Erin O’Hare

MUSIC MAKERS

Add some musical improvisation to your life with MIMA’s “Human DJ” game. Each participant plays the DJ, conducting the group and dictating the direction of a musical experience for a short period before passing the reins to another participant. The overall song never stops but changes gradually with the contributions of each DJ.

1. Gather your group in a circle. Start a basic beat or “pulse” with your feet.

2. Select a confident participant to be the first DJ to step into the center.

3. DJ leads the entire group in a looped musical pattern using voice, body percussion or anything available. Keep it going…

4. The DJ gradually splits the full circle into segments of two to four people, leading each in a call-and-response of a new musical idea or layer. Think in terms of instrumentation: drums, bass, guitar, horns, vocal melody, etc.

5. After five or six layers have been added or changed, the DJ chooses someone to take his place in the center and lead the group.

6. Continue changing DJs and sounds to improvise a constantly changing musical composition.

Tips:

Try an eight-beat phrase. A longer phrase equals variability.

Use eye contact and clear body motions to model dynamic changes, rests, etc. (i.e., raising or lowering your arms to adjust volume and achieve a balanced mix among the group).

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