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Discovering 'How I See Music'

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FNV HISM Workshop Northwood Elementary

Students at the "How I See Music" workshop at Northwood Elementary School in Napa.

Close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you. What images do you see? Or, perhaps more pointedly, what do you feel? Will your senses be different at 5 years old or 90? Does it change if you listen to classical music?

These were questions posed by Lissa Gibbs, director of education and engagement for Festival Napa Valley, to elementary school students and those in senior centers.

The mission of Festival Napa Valley is to bring the arts to everyone. It is presented by the nonprofit Napa Valley Festival Association. Besides extending free and affordable access to top-notch performances, Festival Napa Valley offers educational programs to schools and provides scholarships for young artists.

“I had wished there was a way that music could more directly apply to what we do year-round and to our live presentations,” said Gibbs. “What if we did something that generated art and could present it during a performance?”

The result is a project titled “How I See Music.”

“How I See Music” is a captivating display of 200 different artwork images set for the festival's Friday opening-night performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, "From the New World." The images will be projected onto an enormous onstage screen behind the orchestra, to be conducted that night by Carlo Ponti. The presentation was partially funded by a grant from Napa County Arts and Culture.

“This past spring, I made presentations to Northwood, West Park and Willow Elementary classes, along with senior activity programs at The Meadows and Rianda House, to engage them in 'deep listening' workshops," Gibbs said. "The power of music is abstract in the imagination, feelings and psyches. To feel it in the form of expressions is how it becomes real.”

“Festival Napa Valley’s theme this year is 'Sounds of America,' and the complexity of what music means as the tapestry that makes us a country,” Gibbs explained. “(Czech composer) Antonín Dvořák came to America in the 1890s to see and experience here what he couldn’t in Europe. He saw different cultures and ethnicities together sharing their folk music. He experienced train travel, and open landscapes and endless fields of grain in Iowa, and composed music that is still performed about the immigrant experience.”

Gibbs worked for many years as a teacher and in community design with public art projects before joining Festival Napa Valley three years ago. She showed her teaching skills when engaging her temporary art “students,” young and old, for this deep listening project.

“I want them to see that the arts belong to all of us. Some think of classical music as appealing to one type of person, but it’s not. So, what is it? First, I ask them to close their eyes and prepare to listen. I play them a sound. Then I ask them what did they hear, what did they feel? Did it make them feel anxious or calm? That’s how we go from hearing it to imagining and expressing it.”

After that discussion, she played a movement from the New World Symphony. When it was over, she told them to open their eyes and paint whatever feeling they had.

“For many of the younger ones, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard of an orchestra or classical music. For older people, the music is part of their lifeline and reminds them of major events in their lives. When I ask either group questions, I explain there are no wrong answers.”

When she conceived of the idea, she figured she might have 200 people take part. In fact, 520 individuals participated, and they produced more than 1,000 paintings. Each painting took only nine to 12 minutes to complete. The supplies were simply tempera paint and watercolor paper.

“Students produced some similar visual motifs, with sunshine golds and yellows, greens and wave movements," Gibbs said. ""You can musically hear the journey.

“I had played different movements to different schools and grades, so I organized the images by what movement they’d heard. I selected the visually strong ones and worked with film editor Jonathan Robinson to put them together.”

“It’s wonderful to see art by 5- to 90-year-olds. The younger ones allowed themselves not to get self-conscious at all. Students in older grades asked more questions about how to do the exercise. In the end, students said it was a 'really good way to listen.' One boy said if he didn’t understand what someone was saying, now he knew to close his eyes and listen.”

Gibbs added, “It’s a way we can all listen and come together, respect a way that’s differently expressed. It’s people coming together in a positive shared experience. Much like a symphony audience.”

Gibbs expects the experience will extend beyond the project for the students.

“Some of the kids in elementary school gain the confidence to do band in middle school. When I ask if anyone plays an instrument, a few hands go up. I tell them they all do; it’s called singing. They can enjoy singing with others and not to judge themselves.”

“It was so much fun and exhilarating to practice deep listening. It will be exciting to share. The conductor Carlo Ponti will be facing the screen and, although he’ll be immersed in the music, I want to hear what he has to say about it.

“The power of music and art allows us to think in a different way or see new dimensions. It’s timeless but also of its time in the moment. Sharing opera, dance and other art allows you to see your life in different ways. The world needs that now. We’re social people and there’s too much polarization in the world. It allows for healthy civil discussion.”

Festival Napa Valley runs July 15-22 at various Napa County venues. Many events are free or low-cost. For more information, visit


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