Violinist Diane Monroe Speaks from the Heart about the Healing Power of Music
In hard times, we inspire. As musicians, that’s one way that our art serves the world. As our minds were blown and our hearts shattered again and again during the past year, I just kept hearing the tune "Hard Times" play over and over in my head, just as it played each night back in the '60s on WHAT radio’s jazz program hosted by Joel Dorn, as the struggle for human rights and civil rights intensified.
We continue to witness racial hatred, grief, fear, and uncertainty about the direction of our country and personal lives. The past year’s pile-up of pandemics—social, health, and economic—has produced an outpouring of creativity and performances that speak to the challenges of this time, that seek to release feelings, soothe anguish, and uplift spirits.
Even artists who do not classify their work as “socially engaged” have contributed their talents to easing the emotional and psychological fallout from closures, lockdowns, distancing, and separation. I am struck how even in virtual space, musical performance has the capacity to move people deeply. And I’m humbled by how these times have challenged musicians, and artists of all disciplines to embrace and exude generosity and vulnerability, as much, if not more than virtuosity.
I am reminded how, throughout my career, I’ve often felt that my playing had the most meaning, and the demands on my artistic imagination, emotional reserves and technical ability were greatest, when I performed for audiences in special need of care and healing—at senior centers, memorial services, prisons, rehab facilities, and the like.
Before the pandemic, I often played for day programs at senior centers. With colleagues like guitarist Monnette Sudler, vocalist Barbara Walker, and vibraphonist Tony Miceli, I took great pleasure in bringing a smile or a steady tap of the foot from a senior seemingly detached from the others in the room. I loved drawing comments like, “Oh, I remember that one,” or “I used to cut a rug to that,” from chatty ladies sitting in wheelchairs or behind walkers.
Watch Diane Monroe and Lafayette Harris perform traditional spirituals, including "Wade in the Water/Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" and "Night in Tunisia"
It brought me joy to offer a bit of respite and uplift for overworked center staff who would find a reason to be in the activity room, even if their duties were elsewhere.
These are audiences for whom a song could truly make their day. Indeed, one of my signature arrangements, for "Amazing Grace," developed from an especially memorable performance I gave at a senior center.
The first time that the power of "Amazing Grace" really hit me was in 1972, while a student at Oberlin College/Conservatory of Music. The legendary folk singer Odetta gave a concert at Finney Chapel to a sold-out 1,200-seat house. I remember her incredibly rich, penetrating voice throughout the program. And then came the finale, "Amazing Grace," a song for which her rendition was near iconic. The entire audience joined in, and every person in the house seemed to be entranced.
That experience still resonated a decade later when I first programmed my own arrangement of "Amazing Grace" at my grandmother’s senior activities center in South Jersey. After Odetta’s unforgettable concert, I researched the history of the song, learned of its widespread global impact, its pentatonic scale connection (discussed below), and listened to scores of recordings performed in literally every language and attached to countless cultural expressions everywhere.
Most of the music creation/arrangement took shape right there at Momma’s senior center, as a simple improvisation on the theme. I thought of my African American Baptist Church roots, and what moved me in that moment was the richness of the rhythmic swing and feel of 9/8 time. This became the meat of the piece for me, while visualizations of painful times in our history turned into music I heard from around the world, and it all became connected as one musical story, infused, naturally, with the blues.
Watch Diane Monroe and Rev. David Bruno perform "Amazing Grace"
Then there are the funerals and memorial services, the wakes, the home-goings, and posthumous tributes. Those are the places and times that call on all my artistic intuition, emotional intelligence, and grasp on the multiple traditions that feed my musical imagination. Here are two recollections—one of a recent, virtual event, and the other of a live memorial from a decade ago.
George Floyd 8:46
Many virtual artistic projects arose out of the tragic murder of George Floyd. I was invited to share in one, which was created by a former violin teacher of mine, Richard Young. Prior to touring as violist of the Vermeer Quartet, Mr. Young was assistant professor of violin at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and second violinist of the New Hungarian String Quartet.
Throughout my career, I have often felt that my playing had the most meaning, and the demands on my artistic imagination, emotional reserves and technical ability were greatest, when I performed for audiences in special need of care and healing.
When Richard called me about joining a virtual ensemble and recommending other string players, he was deeply affected by the horror of Floyd’s murder, and seemed driven to devise a collective response to the inhumanity of Floyd’s death and countless others alike. Richard’s project, “George Floyd 8:46," featured actual footage of the tragedy, accompanied by Tomaso Albinoni's Adagio in G minor for string orchestra, organ continuo, with violin solo obligato.
In this work, I played a portion of the solo lines that were divided up among a few violinists. As I prepared these lines, I reminded myself of where cultural traditions merged in me. I was well aware of taking my time in crafting the Neo-Baroque phrases to make them sound spontaneous. I wished to make sure to sound free of the bar lines of the printed page. While implying and shaping the rhythm of the line, I focused my intention on evoking emotions that both reflected and uplifted the moment.
I thought about what character or role the specific lines played within the whole picture of the piece; I thought about where to intensify the energy, and where the musical line called for rest. These to me are musical practices common to musicians within all musical vocabularies—not just classical, not just jazz, or other musical genres. This virtual performance, at that fraught moment, called for more than a lovely balm—it called for a measure of otherness to correspond to the rupture that Floyd’s death wreaked on illusions about the value placed on Black lives.
Watch Diane Monroe play in this virtual performance created by Richard Young
In 2011, a beloved student of mine in her late 80s fell ill and soon passed over. Prior to that time, she had requested that I play "Danny Boy" for her memorial service, simply because she loved it, and had often played the melody on the violin. After thinking more on the time we’d spent together, I began to come up with my own rendition for solo violin.
I seized the opportunity to explore the places where cultural music traditions merge. "Danny Boy "is another one of those songs that immediately speaks on a deep emotional level to all, and I find it intriguing that so many other pieces that go straight to the heart, "Amazing Grace" included, have in common their use of the pentatonic scale (a five-note scale which make up the black keys of the piano).
The pentatonic scale is universal—from the music of ancient Africa, (that fuels African American spirituals, gospel, blues, country, rock, jazz, etc), to the old melodies of Scotland and Ireland, the music of all of Eastern Europe, the North and South indigenous Americans, Flamenco music, the music of Dvorak, Janacek, ancient Hebraic chants, the melodies of Brazil, the music of China, India, Central Asia, Mongolia, Indonesia and Vietnam, and beyond.
It was difficult, as always, to play for a friend’s service. But once I began playing, I felt as if the silent audience was accompanying me. It took me back to Mt. Zion Baptist Church as a young girl sitting with my grandmother, feeling the high emotion of the outstanding voices of the choir. Those are magical moments I’ll never forget.
Throughout my career, the existing “genre” classifications of music we live by have always tended to make me feel fragmented and isolated. I look forward to there being more focus on the universal principles of music that unite us in deep meaning, and not just in hard times like the present.
Watch a performance of Diane Monroe's "Violin Woman, African Dreams" played by Diane Monroe, Charlotte Blake-Alston, PubliQuartet (Curtis Stewart, Jannina Norpoth, Nick Revel, Hamilton Berry), Ayodele Maakheru, Yacouba Sissoko, Lee Smith, Leonard “Doc” Gibbs, and Harry “Butch” Reed
About Diane Monroe:
Diane Monroe, a native Philadelphian, is a violinist whose versatility and expressive artistry consistently bring both jazz and classical audiences to their feet. Her visibility as a jazz artist began with her long-standing membership as first violinist of the Uptown String Quartet and the Max Roach Double Quartet. However, Monroe is more than simply a fine performer; her original compositions and arrangements are highlighted on TV shows, recordings, and in performances in major concert halls and festivals throughout the world.
Black History Month on WRTI is supported by Temple University, home to the first Department of Africology and African American studies in the country to offer a doctoral program.