Waving her hand like an orchestra conductor, Gaelynn Lea encouraged about a dozen Rock River School students to sing along with her.
“Bird, why do you sing?” Lea crooned.
Sitting on the floor in a semi-circle around the visiting musician Thursday, some of the students tried the words as if it were the first time their mouths had formed such sounds. Others laid back, looking around the school’s music room and pretending not to be interested in joining the harmony, but tapped their fingers or feet in time with the song.
Lea was not deterred, encouraging the adolescents to try it again.
A couple chorus lines later, the class was humming, strumming or outright singing Lea’s “Bird Song.”
“Fate has clipped your wings,” they warbled in unison.
Having won National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2016, Lea spent the last two years touring across the world, including a short stop in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she met Rock River School music teacher Meghan Goodner.
“(Goodner) came to my concert in October,” Lea said.
“And, she gave me a choir folder full of letters from her students. She said, ‘We’ve been watching videos of your performances, and they really wanted to express their gratitude.’”
Lea received letters from students before, but never a whole class. The folder moved her.
“That really made my week, dudes,” she told the class. “I kept them and carried them around on tour, and that’s why I’m here — because of your letters.”
The 34-year-old violinist said after receiving the students’ correspondence, she knew she wanted to visit the school.
The request overjoyed Goodner.
“The concert was pretty small, so I was able to just walk up and give her the letters,” Goodner explained. “(Lea) said, ‘I love kids, do you think it would be possible to meet each other and come to your school?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Yeah!’”
Lea’s melody bent around the music room as her fingers danced along the neck of her weathered violin.
Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bones disease, Lea played the violin upright, propping up the instrument’s body with her bare foot as she sat cross legged in an electric wheelchair.
“When I was 10 years old, an orchestra came to my school, and I remember really liking the sound,” Lea said. “In fifth grade, I had the chance to join (the school’s symphony). But because I am so small, the teacher had to figure out a different way for me to play, so I play up and down.”
Watching the visiting orchestra and interacting with her music teacher taught Lea the value of introducing young people to new experiences, she said.
“I don’t think I would have played (violin) if an orchestra hadn’t come through my town,” Lea said.
Instead of visiting Rock River and simply performing for the school, Lea included the music students in her performance, while talking them through her creative process.
“In our country, I don’t think we’re very good at emphasizing the importance of creative expression,” she said. “They might be uncomfortable right now, but I have audiences sing ‘Bird Song’ with me at nearly every show. Every time, people are like, ‘That song was just so great.’ And it’s not because I was doing anything that crazy, but they were singing and expressing themselves. I think we all have a desire to do that.”
While Lea’s performance was not originally scheduled into Goodner’s class plan, the music teacher said Lea was not the first musician to visit the school during the 2017-2018 academic year.
“This year, my curriculum is focusing on American music styles,” Goodner said. “So I’m trying to expose them to a lot of different things. We had a bluegrass band here, and we had a banjo player here.”
Giving the students a comprehensive understanding of different music styles and their origins helps the class understand how the world is connected and influenced by music, she said.
“The more live people I can get, the more the kids can connect a face to a concept,” Goodner said. “It helps them understand that thing and gives it life and personality.”
For Lea, the opportunity to share her passion for music with the students was well worth the trip.
“As a touring artist, it’s cool when you can play really big shows,” Lea said. “But I also think that at every place I play, there are people listening, and they are just as important as the big crowds in New York.”