Art in Paradise: And the Award Goes To…

I first met Aric Bieganek a couple of years ago, when he was a friend of a friend at a dinner party. He was friendly, a touch wry, and apparently a kids’ musician of some stripe, leader of the group Royal Order of Chords and Keys (R.O.C.K.).

Of course, being a kids’ musician doesn’t mean what it once did: possessing a tolerance for saccharine sweet music, and, likely as not, wearing colorful suspenders.

Since that dinner party, I’ve gotten to know Bieganek better. But I only really got to see what he’s made of musically when I had the chance to play for an audience of kids a few months ago.

I’ve been steeped in old jazz for a good few years now, and on the premise that it’s always the best idea to play what you know when it comes to public performance, I dutifully plugged in my guitar and broke out the old-school stuff for the kids. I expected to hear crickets shortly. What self-respecting three-year-old is into Duke Ellington?

My fears were unfounded. They immediately, intuitively got it, even the tunes without vocals. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess—kids like to dance, and all they require is a reasonable rhythm.

Not so bad, I thought. This whole kids’ music thing isn’t so mysterious. And the tots even went a little crazy when a few vocal tunes arrived.

Then, in the spirit of the day, it only seemed reasonable to offer my guitar to Bieganek, who had arrived with wife and daughter. He seemed a touch reluctant, but that quickly evaporated and he took the stage.

It was a matter of only a minute or so before he had the kids rapt. They were transfixed in a way that my music and interaction could never have commanded. The whole business seemed to revolve around that old piece of advice from The Kinks: “Give the people what they want.”

What the toddler set wants, apparently, starts with songs they know. Bieganek trotted out the timeworn classics, stuff like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” That one had them enraptured even in the cheap seats.

By the time he got to his own material, things like the James Brown-esque “Cookies and Milk,” the kids had been primed. New music and new surprises became matters of even greater delight than sing-alongs.

Bieganek’s guest turn became a whole guest set, and the kids loved every minute. Clearly, so did Bieganek. I felt like I’d been given, in just a few minutes, key insights about how to work with kids. I was impressed.

It came as a nice surprise, then, to hear that Bieganek would receive this year’s WFCR Arts and Humanities Award for Emerging Talent.

The first installment of this column (“The Other Awards Show,” Feb. 26, 2009) looked at recent winners of the Northampton Arts Council’s annual awards and posed this question: “Isn’t something amiss in Paradise when artistic awards become equally about businesses and political connections instead of the bohemia and groundbreaking art the town reportedly loves?”

The Northampton Arts Council and other longtime Valley arts organizations have offered a mixed bag, of course, doling out awards that seem to reflect pure merit in addition to some that seem more about politicking. It’s probably an inevitability in any arts scene. That same column posed another question: where are the contemporary counterparts to the most innovative award recipients the Arts Council and others have recognized in the past?

WFCR tends to be a fairly staid organization, with its focus on classical and jazz music above all else, but in giving the nod to Bieganek, the station seems to have offered a good answer to that question.

It’s no small feat to take a room full of toddlers and turn them to a near-unified, if pint-sized, mosh pit. It was a treat to watch Bieganek, who I knew till then mostly as a wise-cracking, fairly mild-mannered guy, hold that bunch of kids entranced. Here’s hoping the Valley’s most prominent arts organizations make a trend of rewarding that kind of up-and-coming talent. That’s one of the keys to maintaining this area’s reputation as an incubator for the arts, not merely a quaint and quirky corner of New England.

Author: James Heflin

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