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Violinist Gaelynn Lea performs for Cloquet elementary schoolers

"What I think is super cool about music is we can all hear the same song and think of different things and feel different emotions," Lea told a class of fourth graders at Churchill Elementary on Tuesday.

Gaelynn Lea performs for students at Cloquet’s Churchill Elementary School.
Singer/musician/songwriter Gaelynn Lea performs a song for students at Cloquet’s Churchill Elementary School on Tuesday, May 10.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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CLOQUET — How many students in Jessica Gagne’s fourth grade class, Gaelynn Lea asked, pictured a place while she performed?

About four or five students raised their hands. Another few pictured an animal. And Lea’s song “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” a haunting rumination on love inspired by a hospital stay in 2013, made five or six students think of a person in their life. Many agreed the song made them feel sad or melancholic.

Gaelynn Lea performs a song for students at Cloquet’s Churchill Elementary School.
Gaelynn Lea conducts students at Churchill Elementary School as they sing the chorus of one of her songs.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“You can close your eyes and just let your brain take you where you want to go,” Lea told the students. “Because what I think is super cool about music is we can all hear the same song and think of different things and feel different emotions.”

Lea, a songwriter and violinist whose disability means she plays the instrument upright like a cello and holds the bow like an upright bass player, performed for three classes at Churchill Elementary on Tuesday, May 10. She uses a looping pedal to record and then replay indefinitely snippets of her live performance, which can give her solo act the same effect as a much larger ensemble. Lea played at Churchill via YourClassical Minnesota Public Radio’s Class Notes, a program that aims to get professional musicians like her into elementary and middle school classrooms to perform and discuss music.

Lea, a 2002 Duluth East High School graduate whose popularity has grown considerably since she won National Public Radio’s “tiny desk” contest in 2016, has played in 45 states and 9 countries, and she recently wrote and recorded an original score for a Broadway production of “Macbeth.”

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Beyond “Someday ...” which might be her most popular song, Lea on Tuesday also played a more intricate version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and the ABCs to demonstrate her looping pedal for students. She included a traditional fiddle song called “Angelina Baker” as well.

She also played two more original compositions: “Let it Go,” which Lea joked she wrote before the movie "Frozen" produced a brainworm of a song by the same name, and a song about forgiving one’s mistakes, complete with a call-and-response segment, called “Watch the World Unfold.”

How many of Gagne’s students, Lea asked, have cranked some loud music to headbang their way out of feeling bad? Or put on feel-good music to dance and elevate an already good day? Or put on calming music during a period of anxiety or stress? A few students nodded knowingly at each question.

Gaelynn Lea performs a song for students at Cloquet’s Churchill Elementary School.
Students give a show of hands in response to a question from Gaelynn Lea.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“We can use music as a way to feel our emotions,” Lea said. “Sometimes that’s actually really healthy because instead of yelling at our moms, we can headbang in our bedroom for a while and then we can feel better when we deal with people again, right?”

Adults, Lea told the News Tribune, might forget that kids have the same emotional makeup they do. Her bittersweet “Someday …” has brought several students to tears, she said.

“When you talk to them about why they were sad, they might be thinking about their dog that died,” Lea said. “It’s not the same lens, but the emotions are the same.”

She said she hopes that her performance prompts students to think about what they can do with music, noting that an orchestra that performed at her school years ago was the catalyst for her own music career. And, perhaps, her work can help students with “hidden” disabilities feel represented.

Lea also fielded a few questions from Gagne’s students after her performance on Tuesday.

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One wondered which U.S. states Lea hasn’t traveled to: Utah, Arkansas, Hawaii, Alaska, and a fifth she couldn’t remember off the top of her head.

Gaelynn Lea performs a song for students at Cloquet’s Churchill Elementary School.
Churchill Elementary music teacher Regina Roemhildt introduces Gaelynn Lea to the first group of students the singer performed for on Tuesday, May 10. Lea performed for three classes at Churchill on Tuesday and will perform for students at Cloquet's Washington Elementary on Thursday, May 12.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“Darn it,” Lea said with mock annoyance. “You got me!”

Another student wondered how long she’s been playing: Lea said she began playing the violin when she was 10, started playing fiddle music when she was 18, joined her first band around 21, began writing songs at 27, and has been touring since she was 32. (She’s 38 now.)

And a third student wondered where Lea’s musical inspiration comes from.

“I really like to think about the way that life has both good parts and bad parts, and that we don’t have to ignore either one,” Lea said. “We can be OK with there being good and bad at the same time, and I think a lot of my songs, that’s sort of the root of them.”

She’s set to perform again on Thursday, May 12, at Washington Elementary in Cloquet and on Friday, May 14, at South High School in Minneapolis.

You can reach Joe Bowen at 218-720-4172 or jbowen@duluthnews.com .

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Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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