New Director: End of Year Thoughts and Voices of Valor

Peter Hill, Senior Director: As I reflect upon my first two months working here at Music For All Seasons and I look to the new year, I find that my thoughts are upon how much I have learned and how wonderful it will be to continue learning how to properly help with the shepherding and administration of the activities that MFAS runs.

I have benefitted from getting to know Rena and Brian and learning from them in frequent meetings in my office and continually asking Dana questions about the day-to-day life of MFAS. I have greatly enjoyed meeting with board members and getting to know the history of people helping right from the start at the founding of MFAS all the way to our newest members. I am amazed at the accomplishments that Rena and Brian have made through the years and the evolution that MFAS has undergone. I am also very glad to have followed my first Voices of Valor cycle.

On the evening of my second day at work, a Tuesday evening – as each meeting would be until the recording session, I observed Jennifer Lampert and Ron Haney’s first session of their November-December cycle of Voices of Valor at Valley Brook Village in Basking Ridge. I knew just about from the start, that I was witnessing something special. And I knew after just a couple of minutes that I wanted to follow them all the way through the nine weeks of meetings. It was a wonder hearing Jennifer and Ron talk to the veterans about the music of their lives and hear how they responded with their own stories. I was amazed at the ease with which Jennifer spoke with the veterans and the ease with which Ron played through style after style while riffing on his acoustic guitar. I heard Jennfier talk about her own life and why she was involved with VOV and I heard Ron play through licks from 50s style prom music to 70s soul to 80s synth pop to 90s rock all the while they were both seeing what the veterans responded to. It turns out that several of the veterans were participating for the second or third time. Knowing a bit of what Jennifer was looking for, they responded to Jennifer’s singing with their own. It was delightful to hear them spontaneously burst out with bits and pieces of songs that they knew, as well as stories from their lives. For two months, my Tuesdays evenings with the veterans, Jennifer, and Ron were the light of my week. 

Each week Jennifer gave the veterans homework in the form of questions to think about for the next session. One of the participants, ‘John’, an older fellow, would always respond to Jennifer’s questions with true poetry: verses that he wrote on his own beforehand. His words were both beautifully lyrical yet grounded in his own reality. Every single word seemed to spring forth from the experiences in his life.

I also remember a particularly poignant moment in their fourth meeting together in which ‘Henry’  reflected upon his life. He spoke about the difficult experiences of losing his wife, being shot, being homeless, and finally coming through these experiences so that he is grateful for his life. It was to be this story and others that they told while thinking through the song-writing process that I will remember vividly. 

Being with the group each week, I had a window into the creation of a unique song based upon words from the veterans. Jennifer and Ron kept working through style after style, riff after riff, line after line settling upon a style that fit the words and thoughts of the veterans. By the seventh session, they had a fully fleshed out song that, as it turns out, was a love song. The veterans’ words both looked back upon lost love and to the future with hope.  

While the recording session was taking place during the eighth time the group met at Montclair State University’s state-of-the-art studio, I interviewed the veterans for our end-of-cycle evaluations. It was wonderful to talk individually with each of the veterans. I was to ask them our questions designed to draw from them what they got out of the cycle of VOV and I wrote down their answers. But, personally, what I got most out of our conversations were simple things I learned about them when we talked about their lives. My conversation with John, the veteran from above, lasted about twenty-five minutes, and to be honest, after answering the required questions, we mostly talked about how nice it was to go out for a day and to be in such an airy, beautiful place like MSU’s school of communication and media. He told me about some of the inspirations of his lyrics and he told me about some movies to watch and some music to listen to and some good things to live by. I knew the answers I was to write down for our evaluations, but it felt like I knew more than that after being able to sit down with him, look out the giant, light-filled windows and hear him talk about his favorite things. 

After reflecting upon the recording session and the veterans’ journey through the cycle of Voices of Valor with the entire team, I found that my thoughts were mostly for myself. I felt inspired to reflect upon my experience and what will be new in my life. It occurred to me that this is what we hope for our participants at the conclusion of each cycle of Voices of Valor: we hope to have given them new things to think about, new things to consider, new relationships to hold, and new songs to sing. I think that by following the veterans for nine weeks, I learned for myself an encapsulation of what the mission of VOV is all about: giving others their own new song to sing.