Photo by Mike ThomasElizabeth Ward Land sets off sparks of joy in kindergarten
What is your destiny?
While I believe in the power of free will in determining our path in this world, there is something to be said for the undeniable influence of natural abilities, personal interests, and early childhood experiences.
It seems that Elizabeth Ward Land was destined for a life laboriously and luxuriously steeped in music. Music was a language spoken in her home. Her mother and grandmother taught piano and little Liz spent many hours practicing and perfecting her musical faculty under her mom's expert tutelage. I have an idealized vision of her as a young girl happily bopping down the hallway of her Denver home with quarter notes dancing around her head.
Photo by Mike ThomasSharing childhood photos of Elizabeth Ward Land with my kindergarten students
Her musicianship expanded when she was in 4th grade. It was then that she took up the only instrument still available in the music department of her elementary school, the oboe. Later, she learned to play the guitar, the ukulele (she says, "A little for novelty"), and even percussion. The latter was for a 2014 Barrington Stage production of Southern Comfort, which transferred to The Public Theater in 2016.
It seems inevitable, given her musical gifts, training, and commitment, that she'd become the outstanding artist she is today. She's performed in six Broadway shows, numerous national tours, and many sold out concerts. Her latest offering is a tribute show she created called Still Within the Sound of My Voice: The Songs of Linda Ronstadt for which she delivered an award winning performance.
It also seems inevitable, given my love of theater, that our paths would eventually intersect. It may have happened as early as her debut on the Great White Way in City of Angels when she was 28 years old. I lived just around the corner from the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson Theatre) and headed over there one evening to catch a performance. I'm not sure she was in it the night I attended - where is that Playbill? - but, it's possible.
However, I know I saw her years later in The Scarlet Pimpernel. I was hopelessly enamored and a bit obsessed with this thrilling musical centered around the French Revolution. It played for over 2 years on Broadway in 3 different versions. Elizabeth Ward Land was in every one and I was there in the audience laughing, crying, and clapping for every iteration. I went alone, with friends, and often second-acted it (with permission from the ushers). I remember her on stage belting it out next to Madame Guillotine and acting it up next to a dashing Douglas Sills.
I never suspected that one day I'd share a stage with her to provide the ASL interpretation of her heartwarming version of "My Grown-Up Christmas List." Or that she'd visit my classroom to read a book and sing a song to my students - not just once, but twice!
Photo by Mike ThomasElizabeth Ward Land reads THE BEAR, THE PIANO, THE DOG, AND THE FIDDLE
by David Litchfield alongside ASL interpreter Stephanie Feyne
The first time she visited she read an endearing book called The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield. I thought it paralleled her own early journey in a way. It is the story of a musically gifted bear who leaves home in order to share his music with the world. He gains great success, but learns the cities he visits are vast and lonely places without his old friends. He finds, in the end, that there is nothing better than sharing music with those you love.
The first time I read this book I thought back to my early days in New York as a young actor. I remember being torn between pursuing a dream and missing my family, my home. I know this is a rite of passage for dreamers who follow their bliss. Yet, when the journey begins, it is charged with the irresistible pull of possibility.
Elizabeth Ward Land also understands this and reminisces in her tribute to Linda Ronstadt...
"I remember when I first moved to New York, marveling at how many people there were everywhere I turned, so crowded, yet so anonymous. I would walk around getting to know the city. I'd look up at the apartments. The windows lit up. I'd wonder about the lives that were happening behind those windows. Who were all these people? What did they do? Which of them would I get to know? Who would I work with? Who would I love?"
For her second classroom visit I asked Liz to read the sequel, The Bear, the Piano, the Dog, and the Fiddle. In this children's book, Bear is back on stage making music with his friends. However, the lesson about the importance of friendship comes from a fiddle playing dog.
I loved my front row seat watching Liz tell this story alongside ASL interpreter Stephanie Feyne. The children's eyes darting back and forth between David Litchfield's luminous illustrations and the artistry of Stephanie's interpretation as Liz read. Words and hands creating images to whisk these kindergarteners away into a new place of wonder. Magical, indeed!
Photo by Mike ThomasGetting to know Elizabeth Ward Land with a Q&A session
And the magic continued during our Q&A session with Liz accepting the children's request for a song. She sang a bit of "A Change in Me" from her CD First Harvest. That voice! It swirls and soars and reaches right into your heart. It vibrates at a frequency that is honest, open, and undeniably moving. It's powerful, yet finds the quiet places within you and settles in to provide comfort you didn't even realize you needed. It's an energizing meditation.
So, we return to the question of destiny. When you receive a gift like hers, one that is nurtured and honed, is it possible or irresponsible not to share it with others? Does one in that situation kinda sorta have a moral obligation? Whatever the answer, I'm honored Elizabeth Ward Land continues to say, "Yes" to sharing her time and talent with my students.
Photo by Mike ThomasA child fingerspells his name during the book signing
The visit concluded with the distribution of books. Every child enjoyed some one-on-one time with Liz as she autographed copies for them to take home. I have been able to give away almost 1,000 books through my Broadway Books First Class program. For some students, these are the only books in their home libraries and they proudly display them on their bookshelves. And there you have my destiny. Although I sometimes wish I were a great musical talent, I cannot deny my calling. Like Liz's voice, I find comfort in teaching. It's where my heart feels most at home.
We all have our gifts and they are calling us to our destinies. What are yours? Where are you headed? As Joseph Campbell wrote in Pathways to Bliss, "What I've told my students is this: Follow your bliss."