Harmonicas in harmony: DeWayne Sean Hill performing at last year

Make Music Madison gives young artists a chance to perform

The city is their stage

The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.

"The big idea behind Make Music Madison is that, on June 21, anyone can come out and play," says Beth Mastin, managing director of the celebration, which was created with young and emerging musicians in mind. "There are lots of ways for kids to be exposed to musical opportunities in Madison. But there are fewer opportunities for them to perform. We made a conscious effort to focus our efforts on youth performers."

All told, more than 100 kids from area elementary, middle and high schools (as well as hundreds of local adult musicians) will make music of one kind or another in public spaces as diverse as Sugar Shack Records, the Brittingham Boats beach house, ZuZu Cafe, the Dane County Regional Airport terminal and "Bob and Nancy's Balcony" overlooking Clemons Street on the east side. Performers and hosts are brought together via Solstice, a new matchmaking software developed in collaboration with representatives from Make Music Madison and its counterpart, Make Music New York.

Make Music Madison debuted on last year's summer solstice as an extension of a global movement begun in France in 1982, when the "Fete de la Musique" became a national musical holiday. Thirty-two years later, local talent is celebrated every summer solstice in more than 700 cities around the world. Madison's event is the only one in Wisconsin, Mastin says, and the second largest in terms of performances -- more than 370, up 100 from last year -- in North America, behind only Make Music New York.

One of the highlights is bound to be an 11 a.m. gig on the Capitol's North Hamilton entrance sidewalk by DeWayne Keyes. Known as "The Harmonica Man," Keyes will reprise his act from last year's celebration by distributing 100 free Hohner harmonicas to members of the crowd and teaching them how to play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

"We're going to see if we can teach people on the spot again," says Keyes, who gives private harmonica lessons, teaches harmonica at Madison College, performs regularly at assisted-living facilities and community centers, and will oversee a one-week harmonica program for kids ages 6 to 12 at the Monroe Street Fine Arts Center in August. "Teaching people on the street two songs isn't as easy as it sounds. But it's ethereal to hear 100 harmonicas playing in unison. Where else are you going to hear that?"

Accompanying Keyes will be 8-year-old Sean Hill, one of the Harmonica Man's star pupils. He began playing a toy harmonica at age 4, took his first lesson at 6 and will perform his debut solo gig during Make Music Madison at the Gardens independent living complex at 6:30 p.m.

Sean's short set will include performances of such traditional favorites as "FrÃre Jacques," "Oh! Susanna," "You Are My Sunshine" and blues riffs that Keyes taught him. Those riffs excite Sean the most, and you can see it on his face when he plays: "They're fun and challenging, and I like things that are fun and challenging," he says.

"The effects of music can be magical," Keyes explains. "A number of youngsters will take lessons, maybe on piano or violin, and then they'll move on. But I've seen others who play their instrument as if they're playing a videogame, and that's nice to see. Sean is starting to go in that direction and attack it. Right now, blues for an 8-year-old is too much homework or having to go to bed early. Wait 'til he gets his heart broken; he'll bring people to tears with his music then."

Mastin agrees with the music-as-magic analogy. Her son had a learning disability as a boy and found solace in the violin. "Performing was a way he could see himself as complete," she says. "It allows for self-expression and is incredibly powerful."

"I really didn't think a child could take harmonica lessons," says Janet McCormick, Sean Hill's mother and a third-grade teacher at Elvehjem Elementary School. "But when he started to shine on the harmonica, his self-esteem went up."

Other youth performers at Make Music Madison include two seventh-grade girls who play trombone and are collectively known as Two Nifty Trombones (or TNT); 16-year-old Stephanie Erin Brill, an award-winning singer-songwriter; a jazz band from Madison East High School called the Accidentals; and such mixed-age ensembles as the Suzuki Strings, Shabazz Fiddlers, Mariachi Juvenil Sin Fronteras and members of the Madison Creative Arts Program.

There are no auditions and no vetting process, but a "Songwriting 101" workshop led by Madison rocker Beth Kille was held in conjunction with Make Music Madison at the American Family DreamBank on June 4.

While event registration is closed, Mastin encourages other local musicians of all ages to simply show up and find a place to play for the day. For example, there will be pianos placed around the Capitol Square, available on a first-come, first-served basis.

"We're really trying to grow a citywide celebration that, within five years, everybody will look forward to every year," Mastin says. "That can only be done if it begins at the grassroots level. Madison is exactly the right size with the right demographics to do something like this."

"I like the idea of letting a city be the platform for musicians, letting people see living, breathing human beings making music that doesn't come out of an iPod," Keyes says. "Madison is the kind of city that will embrace that."

For a rundown of all scheduled Make Music Madison performances, visit www.makemusicmadison.org.

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