Duo shares love of music

There’s a tradition in places like Irish pubs, college bars and coffeehouses that if people feel inspired, they’re welcome to get up and join the musicians onstage and form an impromptu jam session.

Karen Hirshon of State College saw that happening in the town where she went to college, and she filed it away in her mind, bringing it out later when she joined two other women to form the music group Simple Gifts.

“You’d hang around afterward, too, hoping to get a chance to talk to some of the performers, or maybe trade some tunes with them, too,” she said.

Hirshon moved on from her college days to play a dozen to 15 instruments in the group, Simple Gifts with fellow State College residents Linda Littleton and Rachel Hall. The women have played together for 18 years, since they met in the Centre County community.

“It’s [State College] such a small town that we all just found each other,” Littleton said.

They either play as a duo or trio, with Littleton and Hirshon playing the majority of performances, including their upcoming concert Saturday at St. Francis University in Loretto.

They also conduct workshops when they come to an area for concerts, such as the workshops they will hold for education and fine arts students at St. Francis and also for school students in the area.

They like to hold workshops for future teachers when they travel in the nine-state, mostly mid-Atlantic region where they give concerts and workshops, the women said.

“What we try to do is give them some skills that they’ll need as classroom teachers,” Littleton said.

Another thing the women incorporate into their workshops and concerts is asking people to bring their own instruments.

They said the idea first came to them when a few people started coming to their concerts with their own instruments. They decided to start making it a point to let people know it was OK to bring whatever instrument they wanted to bring, and join in with the music.

“We kind of have a secret mission to spread the word that anybody can play an instrument,” Hirshon said. “We think you just need direction.”

Both Hirshon, who grew up in Illinois, and Littleton, who was born in Philadelphia, started playing the violin when they were little girls. Hall, who’s from Ohio, also began playing the piano at a young age. The women all play folk music, which is the focus of Simple Gifts, Littleton said.

“I think I’ve always liked the whole concept of music, music being a simple gift,” she said. “Folk music has an inherent sense of community, it doesn’t matter who wrote it.”

The women chose the name for their group from the Shaker folk song of the same name. During their concert, they play a wide variety of folk songs using a range of instruments including violins, mandolins, recorders and piano. They also explain a lot about folk music and the instruments they use in their performances.

“While one of us is explaining about the music, the other is arranging the instruments,” Littleton said.

This is the second year in a row that the group has performed at St. Francis, said Martha O’Brien, associate dean of general education and instructor of music at the university. O’Brien said that after the group appeared at the school in 2012, she suggested them for this year’s Artists-In-Residence program for the School of Arts & Letters at St. Francis.

The program is paid for with a combination of grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts; the Pennsylvania Arts on Tour, which is a program developed and funded by the Heinz Endowments; the William Penn Foundation; and the Pew Charitable Trusts, and administered by the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, O’Brien said.

“In this particular case, the School of Arts & Letters budget is partially funding workshops and performances, with the balance coming from a grant from [the state],” O’Brien said.

O’Brien is also responsible for the idea that at the Simple Gifts workshop and concert on Saturday, the admission fee will be waived if audience members bring a donation for the Dorothy Day Center’s Food Bank.

“We wanted to offer that option in order to open the workshop and concert to people who might not otherwise be able to attend – large families with many children for example,” O’Brien said.