Volunteer spotlight: Gwen Smalley

Local naturalist and bird watcher Gwen Smalley attended the Birdfoot Festival’s kick-off benefit in March 2012 and says that when she heard what was planned for the inaugural season, she knew she’d have to be involved. A year later, she became a Birdfoot Community Ambassador, a monthly sustaining member, and one of the Birdfoot Festival’s biggest fans.

When we asked her why, Gwen told us, “I grew up in a family that loved classical music but we couldn’t play worth a darn. No musical talent. My parents played the best recordings in the house all the time, so I grew up immersed in music, always listening to classical music. We went to the opera and the symphony in New Orleans, and also at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center…all the great halls!”

Despite a life rich in music and concerts, she said that the Birdfoot Festival was a completely new experience for her. “I’ve heard and seen Perlman, Placido Domingo, Zuckerman, Leontine Price, Yo-Yo Ma, Ashkenazy, etc, but never met them,” she said. Birdfoot was different because she got to know the musicians. “Here, I’m involved personally,” Gwen said about her Birdfoot experience. “I don’t just pay for a ticket, sit down, listen, and leave. The music sounds different when you know the musicians! When you attend an open rehearsal and the musicians talk to you about what they hear and are trying to convey in the music, you learn more about how to listen to the music. I’ve taken music appreciation classes and read books about classical music, but this has made a huge difference for me.”

Gwen got involved with the Birdfoot Festival in 2012 by hosting two musicians. “It was like dying and going to heaven,” she says. “I’ve been a naturalist my whole life, listened to classical music my entire life, heard all these famous artists, but this was…different! Two of them stayed in my house and we spent a lot of time talking. I was able to ask questions that I’ve always had that seemed so naive that I wouldn’t ask anyone else. I got to explore the music and what being a musician is like with them— they’re fabulous, fun, normal people….they love having a good time, and they’re fantastically talented and brilliant, but there’s no snobbery. I took them out for drinks one night and introduced them to Sazeracs….they love New Orleans so much that it makes you feel great to share this city and everything that is wonderful about it with them!

When we asked Gwen what motivated her as a Birdfoot volunteer, her reply was that, “everybody who likes classical music needs to be this involved. You get to meet and get to know the musicians.” She added that during one of the Birdfoot 2012 concerts, “I was literally two feet away from one of the violists….I’d never paid that much attention to violists before, and I could focus on his musical voice. When do you ever get to sit two feet away from a viola in a concert?  This was a totally new experience.”

Gwen also said that her involvement with the Birdfoot Festival has changed the way she experiences music on a daily basis: “Now, when I listen to my collection of recordings of chamber music, symphonies, and opera, they sound different to me. The Birdfoot Festival has made classical music intimate for me…I can hear the voices of the different instruments and imagine the personalities of the musicians.”

“Chamber music was written to be heard close up,” Gwen says, “Not in a huge auditorium. I’ve become a monthly sustaining member because I want to see Birdfoot be able to continue performing in small venues, which means that donor support is important. This has hugely enriched my life and I want to stay part of this important new idea. I want to see the Birdfoot Festival grow and expand so that more people can have the experience that I had.”

Gwen added, “I can’t wait until May….it has been a long year and I can’t wait to have “my” musicians back!”