Arts & Culture

Acoustic artists showcase solo skills

Contributing Writer
Sunday, November 11, 2012

Harmonies echoed over the steps of Faunce House Thursday and Friday nights as musicians armed with acoustic guitars played in the Brown Unheard Acoustic Showcase in the Underground, advertised with the slogan “Because only music brings sound.” 

The 19 musical acts included a serenade-style cover of Justin Bieber’s “Girlfriend” by Renata Martin ’14, a lively bluegrass set by the Gano Street Jumpers and soulful piano and vocals by Ellen Zahniser ’14. 

MJ Batson ’13 tapped her sneaker to the beat and leaned against the wall to the side of the stage as she drank coffee – absorbed in a song for a moment – before hurrying to adjust the sound, take photos, move the video camera, regulate the recording system and then switch out instruments and microphones for the next performance. 

As the sole organizer of the showcase, Batson moved equipment and taught herself the basics of how to manage sound when she couldn’t find people to help, she said. 

“I wanted to hear people play music and was kind of fed up with the lack of venues and forums for that to happen. The idea is just to promote people to write and to play and to have a venue for them to be heard,” she said. 

After weeks of scoping out musicians and reconnecting with members of her songwriting class, Batson started getting responses from interested musicians. She decided to hold auditions, mostly to make sure musicians were more prepared than they might be for an open-mic event, she said. She met with each performer at least three times before the showcase, she said, and their hard work paid off through the event’s total of eight hours of acoustic music. 

The showcase was a hit in terms of audience support, with students constantly streaming in and out on Friday, sitting on the floor and leaning against the walls when all the seats filled. 

“The good thing about Brown is that I find peers are very supportive,” Batson said. “Even if you’re not the best, I know my peers will be nice. Regardless of whether they love it or hate it, they’ll tell me they love it because they mean it, because they love me.” 

It was especially important to have that support since, as Batson said, when performing original music, “each performance is like your gallery. It’s like putting up your paintings on the wall. I know when I walk into a gallery, I say ‘I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that,’ and you have to know people do the same.” 

Sam Pearce ’14, who performed with Ursula Raasted ’14, whispered “I’m so nervous” into the microphone before they immersed the audience in the infectious sounds of their subtle percussion and repetitive electric guitar under Pearce’s rapping and Raasted’s elegantly wandering vocals.

“What’s scary about playing your own music is it’s a piece of your soul,” Pearce said. “The most important thing about any song is that it’s honest. People tend to write songs about the parts of themselves that are the most confusing to them, so presenting that to an audience is scary.”

Adding to the challenges of singer-songwriter performance was that most musicians performed alone. While some of the performances featured great collaborations, both new and old, Batson said she hopes the event will foster creation of more partnerships between talented people. “I don’t think anybody should not be able to play because they don’t have the musicians.”

“Some people collaborated impromptu – they met because of this,” she said.

Martin met Zahniser this year as transfer students, and Zahniser joined her on one of her songs for beautiful vocal harmony. Tyler Beck ’16 and Jordan Schulz ’16 also met this year at Excellence at Brown and started doing covers together after they “jammed one day,” Schulz said.

Other partnerships, such as Pearce’s and Raasted’s, have been more ongoing. When Pearce lost his voice after teaching music for long hours his freshman year, he felt lucky to have Raasted to sing for him, Pearce said. His song “Beginners,” which they performed at the showcase, was the first original of his that she has performed, Pearce said.

Batson said she hopes musicians form collaborative relationships and a sense of community during their time at Brown. “If they can do it at Brown, it will be so much easier than having to do that out in the real world,” she said. 

Michael Weinstein ’15, a contributing writer for The Herald, gave the last performance of the Friday lineup. He had helped Batson with some sound logistics both Thursday and Friday evenings, and when it came time for his performance, he lowered the lighting and turned on the “moonflower spotlight” for dramatic effect. His folk-style acoustic guitar accompanied imaginative and clever original lyrics that elicited laughs and captured the full attention of the audience.

Mary Craig ‘13.5, who played ukulele and sang in the showcase with percussion accompaniment by Jonah David ‘13.5, said following the performances on Friday, “I was blown away. I’m just so impressed by my peers in every field.”

Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron, who also attended, said, “I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend a Friday evening – soaking up Brown talent.” 

Batson said she hopes to have an open mic once or twice a month and showcases twice a semester. She is also working on bringing some speakers to campus next semester.

Batson has also submitted a proposal for approval to start a small publication about the music community at Brown, and she said she hopes to start a collaboration between musicians and visual artists who can help create cover art for albums. 

Over winter break, Batson will be working on setting up, which will act essentially as an iTunes for Brown, Batson said, and will hopefully have tracks and videos, including the ones recorded at the showcase by January. 

Batson said, “Eventually, it will be like Brown Heard” – instead of Brown Unheard.


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