By Annette Hinkle
With its elegant setting, though The American Hotel may be the East End’s equivalent of legendary New York City eating and drinking establishments, it’s been a long time since the place has captured the musical ambiance of venues like the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel on a regular basis.
But come the first week in January, Susan Gabriel is setting out to change all that.
Gabriel, a singer, songwriter and musician who recently relocated to the East End from California, is ready to fire up the piano at the venerable Sag Harbor institution.
On January 6, she begins “Susan Gabriel Cabaret at The American Hotel,” a regular “dinner and a show” Thursday venue that will offer just that. It starts with dinner at 7 p.m. followed by Gabriel’s performance at 8:30 p.m. Guests can come just for the show, if they choose, or enjoy the whole package.
“I’m not playing background music,” explains Gabriel who bills the evening as a little bit of New York City at the end of the Jitney line. “This will be a prix fixe dinner in the winter with a captive audience in the side room.”
Though she’s an accomplished singer and musician (her instruments are flute and piano), Gabriel’s shows also include monologues from original one-woman musicals she has penned and performed around the country.
“The monologues are poignant, satiric and sardonic,” she says. “It gets into some of the things people aren’t talking about — but are thinking.”
“There’s a trend for living room entertainment right now. People want to get warm and fuzzy and tactile,” adds Gabriel. “During this kind of economy there’s always a hunger to connect, but with something that inspires, entertains and uplifts.”
Gabriel notes the material will change weekly, ensuring no two shows are the same. The program also includes a rotating ensemble of musicians — on opening night Morris Goldberg performs on saxophone and clarinet along with bassist Peter Weiss. On January 13, Gabriel will be joined by guitarist Peter “Bosco” Michne.
Though Gabriel is a natural performer, she admits her real love is ARISE (A Round In Sound Enterprise), a music education program she developed in the 1980s while living in London. She is currently working with children (and families) both locally and in Vermont and is looking to expand the music program here.
When Gabriel founded ARISE, she had just left a career in television and the program grew out of her disenchantment with the industry, which she felt was far more focused on medium than message.
“I was born in the TV industry,” says Gabriel whose father was the voice of talk shows and commercials. “In my house, TV was more important than people.”
“We traded our heroes for celebrities,” she laments. “So when it came time for my talents to be explored I was challenged to look at content.”
It was a desire for real substance that drove her to pursue performing, songwriter, and ultimately, music education. Like the content (or lack thereof) on television, Gabriel feels the same can be said about the way in which music has been taught.
“We have fragmented it,” says Gabriel. “What music was in us in the first place? A heart beat. It is a musical instrument.”
Though Gabriel tailors her methods and curriculum to each student (be it a traditional learner or challenged child), she always begins by asking where music comes from. Inevitably, the student will point to the instrument. But then Gabriel will point to the student.
“We define, articulate and contemplate their own container full of musical instruments,” she says. “I’ll ask them to draw the heart — the heartbeat is musical. ‘What’s in your heart?’ I’ll ask. They say ‘I love baseball, or my family.’ It’s a connection. There has to be communication.”
From there, the student moves to percussion by replicating the heart beat using a shaker. Next comes painted symbols of what they feel inside which are placed on a mural, either in a space or on a line, and using their own rhythm, Gabriel and the student play the notes on the mural. An original song on the first day. Only later do the actual notes and music get introduced .
“The sheet music is the last thing. Not the first like it used to be,” says Gabriel. “We identify the music in the person, access it and take it to the instrument.”
While this may sound like a new-age approach, Gabriel, who professes to being neither a scientist nor a therapist, feels instinctively it is, in fact, the way music education should have always been.
“It’s not about giving confidence, it’s pointing the boat in the right direction in the beginning,” she explains. “It’s not holistic. It’s actually a new language. When people talk about the repair of education, they talk about what was extracurricular — music and art.”
“This is about putting music and art in a fundamental, not extracurricular position,” she adds. “It’s direct, present, and immediately accessible. I’m using music and art to heal the system and putting it in a new position.”
“I’m about what’s coming, not the alternative.”
In January, Gabriel plans to offer two workshops at Bay Street Theatre — songwriting for ages 3 to 12, and a music and arts communication class for adults, which is appropriate for anyone, including writers and artists, looking to tap into their creativity or become more tuned into themselves and the world.
“Those are needs in the culture. This addresses things not through heavy conversation,” says Gabriel. “The theme is keeping it green from inside and out.”
To reserve a table for “Susan Gabriel Cabaret at The American Hotel,” call 725-3535.