Easygoing atmosphere aids learning at Common Ground multicultural center


Flexible scheduling occasionally left classes short of students at Common Ground on the Hill.

"People are picking and choosing their classes, so there's no guarantee how many or who will be in each session," said Tony Barrand, a professor of folklore and aesthetics at Boston University and singing partner of John Roberts for 30 years.

Indifferent to the size of the audience -- one student -- in their Tuesday class, the two musicians cheerfully sang their lessons on "Immigration, Transplantation and Transportation" in decidedly British accents. They paused frequently to compare notes with the student.

The class is one of many offered at Common Ground, a multicultural music and arts center, which opened July 9 for a two-week run at Western Maryland College.

The easygoing air surrounds an intensity to build common ground through music and the arts.

Mr. Roberts often accompanied Mr. Barrand on concertina or banjo as the duo sang the sad tales of forced immigration, frequently to penal colonies in Australia.

"You can sing a song for years and years, and all of a sudden some totally new meaning pops out," Mr. Barrand said. "All the songs are insights into the lives of the people who made them."

The native Englishmen, now residents of New England, are lecturing and entertaining this week as Common Ground turns its attention to the British and Irish experience. Last week, the center focused on "American Traditions in Black and White."

By week's end, their class size had swelled considerably and added a Celtic perspective from Mick Maloney, a lecturer on all things Irish.

Common Ground students, who range in age from 3 to 70, are learning to play dulcimers, harps and fiddles, and passers-by catch them practicing their scales outside the buildings on the Westminster campus.

They are also hearing the stories of long ago struggles for peace and justice. And, they are finding common ground in their myriad backgrounds.

"This is a brilliant idea, a school with a communal emphasis," said Bonnie Rideout, a Scottish fiddle teacher. "There is everything from problem solving to breathing lessons. It all pertains to the whole person, not just one aspect."

Her 3- and 4-year-old daughters were taking music lessons with Pauline Wiseman and Claire White, two champion 17-year-old fiddlers from the Shetland Islands.

"They are young, but the children are picking up most of what we are doing," Pauline said.

Claire moved inside a circle of children and encouraged them to try notes for "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep." She promised the children who practiced a chance to play in a concert this evening.

"At home, we teach one-on-one, usually starting when the child is 6," she said. "But, it can be done younger."

It takes a little cooperation, though, an elusive commodity with the youngest players. In midsong, Tamlyn Moss, 5, abruptly returned her violin to its case.

"I am just starting to learn," said Tamlyn. "I like it, but it's hard work. The violin squeaks because it's tired, so I put it away for $$TC while."

Claire and Pauline had just switched to their teaching roles. They spent last week as students learning American gospel music.

"It was a tremendous experience with music, totally different from anything we have ever heard," said Claire.

Walt Michael, the founder of Common Ground, snapped photos of his 9-year-old daughter playing the violin. He said he hopes the center becomes an annual base for peace lessons through music and art.

In the corridor outside the music room, a few children took a break from the scales to color a mural with international peace symbols.

"We are learning to recognize inner peace in our lives and our role in making outer peace," said Susan Thomas-Azud, the children's program coordinator for Common Ground. "Peace-making begins from birth."

Student Gabriel Osborne, 8, worked intently on a crossed hands picture, the sign language symbol for peace.

"Peace can help you solve your problems, but it can be really hard to use," he said.

The Shetland Fiddlers, Ms. Rideout, Mr. Barrand, Mr. Roberts, Caraobh Rua, a traditional Irish band, and Tom Paxton, a renowed folk singer and songwriter, will be among the concert performers at 7 p.m. today in front of Hoover Library. Admission is $10. Information: 857-2771.

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