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Attend a house concert, right here in Middletown: Susannah Gal

Posted 5/10/17

I have dance in my blood.

My mother studied ballet and modern dance, and danced in the touring company of the Broadway musical “Oklahoma” when she was a teenager. When I was growing up, she …

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Attend a house concert, right here in Middletown: Susannah Gal


I have dance in my blood.

My mother studied ballet and modern dance, and danced in the touring company of the Broadway musical “Oklahoma” when she was a teenager. When I was growing up, she was a modern dance teacher and coordinated a dance group for our then church, Edgewood United Church of Christ in East Lansing, Michigan. I remember performing in various productions, sometimes with my sisters doing choreography that my mother had created.

Music wasn’t as big a thing. I took clarinet in band in elementary school though had to quit since in a family of five kids, we weren’t able to afford the instrument rental. I also remember that we had a green baby grand piano in our home, and that I taught myself to read enough music to play simple tunes on it.

When I met my husband, Hilton, at a choral event in a synagogue, he was the tenor in the quartet and conducted their chorus. On our first date, we went to a cowboy dance place and I learned how to do the “Cotton Eyed Joe.” Hilton had grown up with music all around him, with an Episcopal pastor father and a music-teaching mother. He played the piano, sometimes in competition with his sisters, to learn the music their mother just “happened to leave on the piano” for them (;-). He picked up organ and choral conducting in high school and when I met him, he was playing regularly for a church, and conducting two choirs besides the one for the synagogue.

I didn’t regularly play an instrument again until I learned the alto recorder when we lived in Europe. I even was good enough to play with my husband at various venues in Switzerland and Poland. Dance combined our love of music and moving together.

We didn’t really start contradancing until we returned from Europe to live in East Lansing for a few years. There we found a wonderful group to dance with two times a month, and I played the recorder for the Morris dance team when I wasn’t dancing with them. Morris dance is an English folk dance style with groups of four to eight dancers doing high jumping movements (with bells on your shins) and holding handkerchiefs, sticks or swords.

When our daughters started to pick up music for school, the older one played the flute and the younger one played violin/fiddle. We joined a local kids music group where all of us could play the Irish or traditional music tunes. We sometimes were asked to play for the contradances in our community.

One way we enjoyed vacationing was to attend music and dance camps in the summer. Our first one was Maine Fiddle camp. Each day the groups of musicians got together and learned some music that day that they might perform later in the evening or in the week. I was in a class (called the Chickadees) with my older daughter, learning from a wonderful penny whistle player. My husband was playing piano in a group called the “Boom-chickadees” while our younger daughter played fiddle with other kids of the same ability. We danced and sang in the evenings with the others in the camp.

The next summer, we went to a family camp in New Hampshire sponsored by the Country Dance and Song Society. This group had much more dancing and lots of music, with our older daughter learning to dance with the long swords and our younger daughter learning to play more for the dances. She and my husband were also part of a class that did a Mummers play, an ancient traditional story. This class was taught by Keith Murphy, a very nice and accomplished musician, playing guitar, mandolin and piano and writing many of his own songs in English and French. He was there at the camp with his wife, Becky Tracy (an extraordinary fiddle player), and their son Aidan. At that time, Keith and Becky played in a dance band called Nightingale; Becky now plays in a group called Wild Asparagus. They live in Vermont and travel quite a bit for their music gigs. Since that first summer, we’ve gotten to know them pretty well and love dancing and listening to their music.

Like our daughters, Becky Tracy has dance music in her blood. Her grandparents were active in the dance scene around Boston in the 1930s and her parents met through dancing. Becky herself began playing for contradancing in Maine after playing classical violin.

Keith is originally from Newfoundland, Canada. He sings traditional songs from eastern Canada, Quebec and New England. His accompaniments of songs (some of which have been around for a century or more) are creative and innovative, which makes them fresh and timeless. He plays so well it all seems effortless. He also composes music — some of his pieces were featured on the Ken Burns’ documentary on the Roosevelts. He is the music director of the Celtic Sojourn St. Patrick’s Day concerts (organized by WGBH, Boston’s public radio station). Keith has been a featured performer on over a dozen recordings, and a guest musician on many others. To hear some samples of their music, check out their website at http://blackislemusic.com.

Why am I telling you all this? I believe I mentioned previously that we bought our house with the idea of dancing in it, which we’ve done several times now. What I may not have mentioned was it’s also a great venue for house concerts. House concerts are a wonderful way to be exposed to music in an intimate setting with some of your neighbors and friends. It’s one of the community building activities I mentioned in a previous column.

At a house concert, you get to know the musicians at a more personal level than is practical in most large concert venues (unless you pay a significant extra fee ;0). We are hosting our friend Keith for an evening of his music and singing on Monday, May 22 starting at 7:30 pm in our home in Middletown. Keith is doing a tour of various venues in New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia, and Harrisburg is on his route! He is a wonderful singer, composer and instrumentalist. It’ll be a great treat to hear him up close in a house concert! Please contact me if you’re interested in attending that evening. We’d love to see you.

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in July 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.