Feel the Music! was born as a hopeful response to tragedy and loss, bringing music to children who had lost a parent or family member on 9/11. The initial idea came to singer-songwriter Valerie Ghent as she bicycled up West Street after volunteering at Ground Zero during the 9/11 recovery. “How can we help the children?” Valerie asked.
Brainstorming with fellow musicians Arturo O’Farrill, Bashiri Johnson and Bar Scott, psychoanalysts Lew Aron, Steven Knoblach and Spyros Orfanos, and 9/11 family groups including Tuesday’s Children and the 9/11 Families Association, Feel the Music! was born with support from the Red Cross Recovery Grants in 2005.
Over the years that followed, Feel the Music! reached hundreds of children and family members, teaching percussion, songwriting, singing, piano, guitar, jazz improvisation, video, art, jewelry-making and more. We provided weekly music and art classes, concerts where students performed alongside professional musicians, weekend retreats, recording sessions, and partnered events with 9/11 family groups. In the words of one young student who lost his father on 9/11, if you can’t put words to it, you can always put notes to it.
Feel the Music! was there, year after year, to raise spirits, provide a creative outlet, and create community. With love and hope, we offered music to children and families who began to sing, play and write songs, and in doing so, changed our lives. Today, as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Feel the Music! teaching artists share remembrances and reflections.
9/11 and Feel the Music. Somehow, I can’t disassociate the two. I remember hearing 1010 WINS as I woke up to hear the President say we’d been attacked by airplanes flying into the World Trade Center. I remember rushing to my son’s school which was directly across the East River from the towers, I remember the bravery of the teachers who wouldn’t let the kids look backwards at the huge windows facing the carnage. I remember asking Zack and Adam to pull their t-shirts over their mouth and nose.
And I remember Davin. Davin Garcia whose father perished in the attack. Valerie Ghent asked me to work with some young musicians. She introduced me to Davin. I fell in love with this young pianist/saxophonist/composer. Shortly after the events at ground zero, Wynton Marsalis asked me to create an orchestra for Jazz at Lincoln Center and I was able to finagle a recording session for some of the young musicians that Feel the Music was tending to.
Davin brought in a bluesy, funky tune about a donut. It was so cool to record this piece with some young musicians who’d manage to find a way out of the darkness that had befallen their lives in a split second. My friend Erica Von Kleist was there, so was Bruce Mathews and so was Val. Seeing this composition brought to life was a privilege I’ll never forget.
We became close friends with Davin and eventually Dylan, his brother. Debbie, his mother, also became a large part of our lives. She and both boys moved to Vermont and we’d visit them regularly.
We lost Davin last year. He was taken from us by sadness and yet he brought so much joy to me personally. I have a video of him when he and his family accompanied me to Cuba. He sat down next to a young Cuban pianist and grinned from ear to ear. My life has been immeasurably enhanced by knowing the Garcia’s. In some small way, the immensity of the Towers falling, was made almost understandable by the immense grace of Feel the Music and the brilliance of Davin, Dylan and Debbie Garcia.
Erica von Kleist
I had the privilege of working with Feel the Music in the early 2000’s, soon after 9/11. Val and I met through our mutual friend Arturo O’Farrill, with whom I was performing at the time. I’d always had a love of music education, and when I heard they needed someone to work with the families I joined the FTM team.
While my focus as an educator has always been on helping students improve musically and technically, FTM led me to understand more deeply the emotional and healing impact that music education can have one someone. I learned how important learning a simple song could be, or the thrill a child can have when touching a piano for the first time. My job was not just to teach notes and rhythms, it was also to make my students smile, laugh, and sing.
Knowing that these lessons provided at least some relief and respite from their grief and trauma helped me more deeply believe the power that music has on the soul. My experience working with the families of FTM made me a more thoughtful teacher, and I know I learned just as much, if not more, from my students as they did from me.
When I started Feel the Music it was a visceral response. It just felt like something I just had to do, to find a way to bring music to the children who had lost a parent on 9/11. I reached out to musician friends, and to colleagues of my father’s at NYU. We had no idea where Feel the Music would go, or how our classes would be received, yet before we knew it we were making music with dozens of children and families all around the Tri-State area. There were so many deeply moving moments in our classes over the years with our inspiring teaching artists it’s nearly impossible to focus on just one, but this memory comes to mind to me today:
In the summer of 2010 I went to Belfast, Northern Ireland with Feel the Music. We were there to create a choir with teens from Argentina, Israel, Palestine, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Spain and the United States, who had each lost a family member from terrorism. Although initially unsure – “I’m not really a singer” said more than one teen – after choosing songs, learning them, and singing together for a few days, their confidence grew. As the culminating concert drew closer, their excitement and positivity was contagious. The concert was such a huge success – “the highlight of the week!” – that the students wanted to sing another song, of their choosing, on the following (closing) day. The song they chose? Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, a song I have sung and played for decades alongside Ashford and Simpson, who wrote it for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1966. I was so surprised! The next day, with huge smiles on their faces, a young man and woman began singing Marvin and Tammi’s parts, the choir came in resoundingly on the chorus, and the next thing we knew the entire room joined in. Music united these talented young people from around the globe, some hailing from oppposite sides of historical conflict, yet there we all were, singing together, sharing love, positivity, and joy. Their voices, cheers and laughter reverberate in my heart today.
Steven Knoblauch, Ph.D.
Soon after the 9/11 tragedy, I was approached by Valerie Ghent and Arturo O’Farrill to work with them in obtaining a grant from the Red Cross for an amazing project they hoped to launch in response to the devastating impact of these events. Quickly working with the late Director of the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, Dr. Lewis Aron, we developed a partnership in which I would become the liaison from NYU serving as a clinical consultant focusing on understanding the trauma of the families we would serve as well as how to shape and manage the programs to be offered in ways that would support both staff and family members in a developing sense of community and mutual support. Within this mission I served as an on-call source of clinical guidance, as well as co-designer of both orientation and ongoing staff training to support the evolving shape and direction for workshops and programs that came to characterize the work of Feel the Music.
The success of my efforts was facilitated by an amazing initial group of artists and support staff impressively dedicated to our mission, often willing to go out of their way to procure necessary materials (instruments, art supplies etc.) for their work, and extra effort involving time and team coordination to achieve our goal of building recovery and resilience for all of the family members joining the program. Specifically, the tireless efforts of Lucia Lezama to identify and connect related services to our efforts for many families, many of whom were initially uncertain of whether their immigrant status might jeopardize their right to being helped, the generous time and energy of artists offering workshops giving birth to healing creativity, particularly the drumming workshops of Dende Macedo and Bashiri Johnson, and Valerie’s unending generosity and creativity in building and guiding the development and implementation of the program as it grew and changed in response to the needs and opportunities for the family members we served. All of these contributed to an amazing energetic startup and quickly successful team effort to launch and sustain a powerful response to the needs of those wonderful family members we came to know, serve and love.
When I think about Feel the Music I think about Saul. He was five or six when I was involved, and during our piano lessons, he was more interested in the mechanics of the instrument than playing it. We spent most of our time figuring out how the keys and dampers worked. That meant getting under the piano and climbing on chairs to look down on it rather than sitting at it. He taught me there many ways to teach and to learn. I loved watching him roll his eyes when I’d sing Sah-oooollll like a howling wolf whenever I saw him.
As a group, we picked apples in upstate New York, swam in icy pools at the Delaware Water Gap, and discovered Shelter Island. At Bryn Mawr College, we banged on makeshift drums with kids from around the world who’d lost someone they loved. I remember wanting to absorb some of Bashiri’s natural calm and appreciating Jude’s weekly art projects that distracted all of us from our troubles. I also remember the thrill of being inside Jazz at Lincoln Center; walking down Broadway with Elie and the sun blazing ahead of us, asking each other what we thought about God; and feeling the peace and strength of Val’s ba gua zhang demonstration during a talent show.
A lot of good has come from Feel the Music.
Thank you all for helping me heal. I hope you have found some measure of peace too. And Val, thank you for your vision, your positive energy, and your goodness.
I remember feeling so very blessed when jewelry making was added to the ‘Feel The Music’ roster of offerings. I so wanted another opportunity to be of service.
What was supposed to be a class for young people, proved to be a magnet as well for the brave mothers still mourning spouses lost on 9/11.
One Saturday at our then location in Long Island while the kids practiced a new metal forging skill, the mothers were joining for the first time making earrings. A particular Mom with grief still etching her face, slowing her movements and responses, excused herself to go to the restroom. She always seemed still sadder & lost than the rest of the moms and we all noticed it.
She returned from the restroom another person.
While in the restroom she put on her earring creations which she found so lovely that she was inspired to let out her hair. And apply some lipstick and eyeliner. And put on a big carefree smile. And make an entrance back to the classroom like a runway model, hands framing her earrings, huge smile and lower face.
What a moment of transformational magic for this Mom and everyone in the room. The back of her grief was broken and a way back to herself and life was forged because of a pair of DIY earrings igniting self-expression and joy.
Feel The Music is a contributor and facilitator of creativity, well being, inclusion, community and healing. I’ve been so very fortunate to include and share my Rhythm Healing classes with Children, Seniors, Cancer patients and the Blind, through Feel The Music. Serving others through music and rhythm is a gift and a blessing for me. Happy Anniversary FTM, and many more.
Mary Lee Kortes
I don’t particularly care to talk or write about my remembrances of 9/11. I’m not sure I have anything of real value to add in terms of that. What I do want to say is that I am grateful for how so many people reacted to the trauma and tragedy. Feel the Music is one example. I am grateful that I got to experience and teach songwriting as a healing act, as a therapeutic venture, that I got to impart this to kids who lost family to 9/11. Even saying that I am grateful for a 9/11 outcome feels wrong and self-centered. But it’s the truth. And truth can be a very good thing. It’s become an endangered species. So there you go, there’s my truth. I am grateful for the community and experience that came into my life after 9/11.
I first began working with the Singin’ Seniors in 2009, a few years after Valerie established Feel the Music. The Lenox Hill Senior Center has been our destination on Thursday afternoons for many years.
Valerie had a vision and was creating safe, healing workshops for kids and families of essential workers who had experienced trauma relating to the attacks on September 11, 2001. She noticed a void in vocal classes for seniors and shortly after, the Singin’ Seniors were created.
With the help of our illustrious accompanist, Clare Cooper, I have had the privilege of leading the Singin’ Seniors in song for twelve years.
The Singin’ Seniors are a vocal ensemble made up of talented Senior Center members who have completed countless seasons of harmony and lead singing, including over Zoom classes through the pandemic. It is important to remember the joy we can find and share through making music together. We honor the work of Feel the Music and remember its original purpose today, as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of September 11th.
Feel The Music! was born out of a desire to help people heal from tragedy, and it continues that mission. This last year it provided comfort and connection to the people who needed it most. We learned new skills, found new ways to communicate, and supported each other through a dark time. I am proud and grateful to be part of this organization.
I think what most comes to mind is that there are so many young people that don’t understand what happened in 9/11/01. Some were babies, some not yet born. If we don’t teach this event in school as a part of history I fear the memory will fade forever. As so many continue to die because of illnesses they developed from this attack, it must not be in vain.