You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2011.

If I close my eyes right now, I can see Tony.

If you were in my mind, you might think I was looking at a short Italian guy in an orange jumpsuit. But I’m seeing a stadium of improbable beings, huge and tiny. When I imagine Tony Montanaro I see everything his mind invented, and his body described. He was the most physically creative person I’ve ever known, and he could transform in a split second from a giant to dancing flea.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah … so the guy’s a mime,” you say. “The silent type with the white-face.” But Tony spoke a lot and he didn’t paint his face. Sure – he could mime – he and Marcel Marceau studied with the same teacher. But he went beyond mime to a form he called “Physical Eloquence” – the art of physical story-telling, with voice, body – and everything.

Tony moved to Maine in the early 70’s,  bought an old barn in South Paris Maine and turned it into a theater he called the “Celebration Barn.”  He taught and performed there. He became known as the “Guru of Street Performers.” Sooner or later every non-traditional performer on the Eastern Seaboard made their way up to Tony’s barn to study with him. You know the host of “America’s Funniest Video’s” – Tom Bergeron? He studied with Tony. You know the “Mentos Guys” from the TV commercial? They came to the Barn, too. And, along with actors, jesters, jugglers, puppeteers, storytellers and dancers, I also found my way to the Barn.

Did I rush up there the minute I heard about him?  No! I didn’t have the guts!  It took me 3 years to get up the courage to actually call and ask if he’d take me for a student. I was afraid he wouldn’t accept me, afraid I wouldn’t fit in, because his workshops were for — well, for other people. People who could do things I couldn’t do. People more able than me, solo performers (which I wasn’t yet), people with exotic skills and street-smart courage. He was “the guy” and I was some weird little harp player!  When I finally got the courage to call and stuttered out a request to study with him, he said, “Sure!” — and that began a relationship that changed my life.

Tony Montanaro

Tony Montanaro

As I watched Tony use his body like an instrument — I learned how to make my own awkward instrument into a part of my body. And when I whined about the prejudices and stereotypes people have about the harp, Tony just looked at me and said, “The harp is the instrument of the storyteller. Tell your stories.”

And to this day, the shows I do after a week at the Barn, are like creative cosmic gushers — whether I’m the teacher or the student — this work liberates me in ways that change my performances for the next 12 months — but at that splendid, raw moment after a week at the Barn, I am the freest I will be all year. I do things in that show, completely spontaneously, that I’ll struggle to reconnect with for the next year.

So why am I telling you this?  It’s on my mind for sure — I’m starting to pack for the Barn again, my yearly pilgrimage to perform and teach a new generation of students alongside Tony’s partner, Karen Montanaro (you can get more info at my workshop page, tour page, or  another blog on the Barn)   But I know many of you live thousands of miles from the Celebration Barn.  You just might not make it there this year.

Tony Montanaro and Deborah Henson-Conant

Tony and Me

So why do I want you do know about it?  Well, my theory is that knowing about things is a step towards experiencing them.  I want you to know about Tony.  Even if you never get to the Barn, I want you to know that one little Italian guy with a vision and a passion could create a PLACE. A place where his vision continues, even after his death. I want you to know you don’t have to be Steven Spielberg creating “Skywalker Ranch” or Robert Redford, creating “Sundance” to create a place that can change people’s lives, even after you’re gone.

And I want you to know that you don’t have to have the resume of a genius to be invited into that place, to belong there.  You can just call and ask to come.  Well, now, you can email, too.

And if you can get to the Barn in August, to join the workshop or come to the concerts, I hope you’ll stand for a moment in the middle of the floor, and let the spirit Tony brought there change your life, too.


For more workshop details Click Here (Aug 15-20, 2011: 5-Day Intensive Workshop)

For more about the Celebration Barn and tickets to show Click here
Aug 19 (Fri): “Meet the Artists” – 8pm
Aug 20 (Sat) : DHC Solo Performance – 8pm

In two weeks I’ll be “Up at the Barn” teaching my 5-Day “Performance for Musicians” Intensive.  There’s only two slots left, so if you’re on the fence, come on over!   Here’s a video I made about the workshop.  And I’ve asked former students to add comments to this post about their own experience at the Barn, so read on!

Once a year, I pack my van with five harps and drive to a big old Barn in Maine where I hold a 5-Day Intensive Workshop for performers. The group is small – never more than 16 – and the students are all ages, all levels and many play different instruments – though there are always many harpists. Students come from all over the US and Europe, and many come back year after year. The co-teacher is my long-time colleague, award-winning dancer Karen Montanaro.

Together, Karen and take this group on a learning adventure that we, ourselves, came to this very barn for 20 years ago, the basic concepts we each still use today to find the authentic performer inside of each of us. We both came to study with – and eventually to love – Tony Montanaro, the man who turned this barn into a study/performance place, who taught us how to look to ourselves and our bodies as the foundation of our performance — and the man who Karen eventually married.

Now, each summer, Karen and I pass along these concepts that changed our lives – and continue to change them – to this small group. We only have 2 slots left for 2011, and we invite you to join. I was always one of those students who waited until the last minute to sign-up, so if you’re like me in that – grab one of these last 2 slots by going direct to the registration page or you can  learn more about the workshop here.

Students at "Performance for Musicians" 5-Day Intensive in 2010

Students at "Performance for Musicians" 5-Day Intensive in 2010

The work we do at the Barn is fundamental – but hard to explain – so I’ve asked former students to add comments below, telling others what they might expect at “Performance for Musicians” to describe their own experience, so that others can get an idea what to expect.

So former students, please add your comments below – describe your own experience at the Barn! What did you experience?  What surprised you?  What happened for you there?  And how has the experience impacted your own life?   


To register right now Click Here

For more workshop details Click Here
Aug 15-20: 5-Day Intensive Workshop

For more about the Celebration Barn and tickets to show Click here
Aug 19 (Fri): “Meet the Artists” – 8pm
Aug 20 (Sat) : DHC Solo Performance – 8pm


I hope I see you “Up at the Barn!”

and p.s. Here are some links to blogs about how the Barn changed my own life:
My Blog about The Workshop

My Blog about Tony & Me

It was one of those things where you just blurt out, “I wanna do THAT!” when it’s something you’ve never done before, and have no idea if you can.

I was talking to Regent Theatre manager, Leland Stein, when he said the UltraSonic Rock Orchestra was in residence on a weekend I was home from tour.  The Regent is a few blocks from my house, and what I blurted out was, “Hey, ask them if they want me to play a Hendrix version of ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at the shows.”

Hendrix at Woodstock

High on my own personal Hendrix Experience

If you’re new to this blog, I should say here that I play the harp.  OK, it’s an electric harp and while I have been called the “Hendrix of the harp” — ’til a few weeks ago I’d actually never played any Hendrix, and … forgive me … but I’d never really listened to “Star Spangled Banner” – I mean the Hendrix version.

So I came into it like I do to most popular culture experiences: as an alien.   Which has a lot of advantages.

I found a YouTube video of Hendrix’s “National Anthem” Woodstock performance and started watching.  Instead of trying to write out the notes, I typed up the lyrics – it seemed easier.  Then I watched the video and scribbled onto the lyrics:   small squiggles where Hendrix bent the notes, intense squiggles blots and bursts where that’s how the music sounded. And as my squiggles and blotches filled the page,  the piece came into view and I realized what Hendrix had done was no random distortion of a national symbol, but an emotional, moving tone-poemillustrating, sometimes very literally, the underlying words of the very piece he was playing.*

Far from defiling the song in any way, Hendrix intentionally illustrated the words.

Would I have noticed this if I hadn’t studied Debussy and Mahler, if I hadn’t listened to Wagner or art songs?   Who knows.

But once I realized it was a tone-poem, I knew how to approach playing it, and if you follow the words either listening to my version or the Hendrix version, you’ll hear immediately how the musical ‘departures’ closely illustrate the words.

One of the most moving moment of the piece, for me, comes after the words:  “Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there …”

Translating Hendrix to Harp

At that point, Hendrix plays a haunting reference to “Taps”  — which creates a beautiful musical double-entendre, because not only does “Taps” have a double meaning of ‘nighttime’ and respect for the death of a soldier – but the first notes of Taps are the same as those that follow in the national anthem (“Oh say, does that star spangled banner yet wave…)” — and on “wave” Hendrix flutters the note in a gorgeous combination of synethesia and onomatopœia, making the music sound the way the words say it looked.

I’d call it musical theater – but it almost seems like musical literature.


UPDATE OCT. 2011 – I’ll be reprising this in my 11-11-11 show at the Regent Theatre, so I searched through my pile for my ‘transcription.’ Here it is (click on it to see it larger):

Hendrix "Transcription"

Hendrix SSB "Transcription"

Blog Categories