When internationally recognized pianist and Davis & Elkins College artist-in-residence Jack Gibbons visited Jennings Randolph Elementary School in Randolph County, most of the young students were impressed before his hands even touched the keyboard. Gibbons' charming English accent immediately grabbed the attention of even the most fidgety third-grader.
"Can you tell I'm not from around here?" he laughs. When he asks the students where they think he's from, they shout out "Australia!" "Ireland!" until finally someone says, "England!"
Gibbons is clearly in his element. He whirls around quickly and pounds out the first few notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: duh-duh-duh-DUH, duh-duh-duh-DUH and asks if anyone knows what it is. He is visibly impressed when a student correctly answers Beethoven.
Internationally renowned pianist Jack Gibbons plays a duet with Jennings Randolph Elementary School fifth-grader Emilee Mearns during one of his many outreach visits to Randolph County schools this spring.
"I can't believe how much some of the students know about classical music," he says.
The question-and-answer session keeps the students engaged. Interspersing the conversation with piano compositions that the youngsters can connect to elevates them to a different place. This is what music in the schools is all about, Gibbons believes.
"I truly want to inspire the kids to music," he says. "Even it only affects just one student, it will be great."
Gibbons has been doing similar performances at elementary schools throughout Randolph County, which are slightly different venues than the ones he normally does. During his time at D&E, he has performed at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, Pittsburgh's Steinway Gallery and New York's Carnegie Hall, but that doesn't mean the recent school performances are of any less importance.
As a matter of fact, Gibbons admits, performing before children can be challenging. "I always want to keep the kids entertained and make sure they are having a good time," he says. "That can be quite difficult, but it is also very inspiring."
So Gibbons uses props and his enormous amount of energy to keep the program from turning into a sit-down parlor performance. The slightly worn upright piano at this particular school gymnasium may have seen better days, but Gibbons is thrilled at the idea of being able to show the students how the piano works. So he pulls up the piano's front cover and gleefully says, "You can't do this with a just a keyboard."
The children are also fascinated by the large screen behind him displaying a visual feed focused on Gibbons' hands, which are moving so quickly over the keys the download has a hard time keeping up. There's that strange sort of two-second delay but the kids love it.
Bruce Dillon, a former middle school teacher, now considers himself an informal "concert liaison" between Gibbons and the public schools.
"When I first heard Jack say he wanted to perform for the students, I was very excited and wanted to make it happen," Dillon says.
Gibbons has performed at 10 area schools throughout the state's largest county this spring. With his huge smile and humorous anecdotes, he easily connects with the students. He jokes as he admits to a fierce rivalry with his older sister and fondly recalls the first time he heard the syncopated rhythms of American ragtime composer Scott Joplin.
"I immediately fell in love with that music," he says.
As he plays several bars of "Maple Leaf Rag" for the students, they are bopping their heads to the beat.
"I love doing this," Gibbons says. "The first time I did outreach with young people was with the British Council. We went to Zimbabwe and played for the children there. It was fantastic."
During these local programs, he especially enjoys having youthful volunteers come up and perform an informal duet with him in front of their classmates. On this visit, two children volunteered for the experience and were visibly excited.
"You just never know what can happen," Gibbons says. "No one really knows how much they may want to play music until that very first performance. For me, it just hit me when I was very young. After that, I couldn't wait to go home and play the piano."
Now Gibbons hopes to pass down that excitement with this music in the schools outreach. Jennings Randolph music teacher Seth Young was very pleased to have Gibbons be a guest artist at his school and believes programs like these are essential.
"It's very important to reinforce the arts as a core subject," he says, "especially here in our area. This may be their only opportunity to hear live classical music."
As the students file out of the gym, still humming some Gershwin that Gibbons performed, Young adds: "We are so fortunate to have someone like Jack perform for these kids. It's great!"
Gibbons was introduced to D&E through philanthropist and major D&E donor Doris Buffet, who brought him to the community for the college's three-day Gershwin Gala. He has served as artist-in-residence since 2010, performing and writing his own compositions.