The music woman creates pleasure with a capital P SOUTHWEST--Mount Airy * Woodbine * Taylorsville * Winfield

June 11, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

When Sheila McKenzie talks about music, she often breaks into song -- sometimes singing a familiar tune like the Italian "Amore" and sometimes an unfamiliar melody such as a Native American refrain that imitates a wolf's howl.

"I've always had music in my life," says Ms. McKenzie, who can sing in 25 languages. "I've done research on music out of that interest and for fun. I've woven all kinds of music together."

Ms. McKenzie, who calls both Mount Airy and Chicago home, travels to schools in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic performing a "musical celebration of the languages, songs and dances of American people."

"The show gets kids to think," she says. "It gives them a chance to back away from the musical tastes they know and to explore singing and dancing. It exposes them to different cultures."

During her shows, Ms. McKenzie wears a beaded peasant costume and plays a guitar. She begins her show with Native American dialogue and slips easily through a series of ethnic tunes that immigrants have brought to America.

"The whole world has come to live in America, and they are truly represented in our schools," says Ms. McKenzie, who during her visits encourages students to form language clubs and to meet once a week to speak that language.

She ends her program telling children that although "we are different in some ways and come from different backgrounds, the future lies in our ability to get along with one another." The final song is "This Land is Your Land."

"In many parts of the world people are still mad at each other," Ms. McKenzie says. "We're a symbol of how you can make a nation for many different peoples."

Ms. McKenzie performed recently at Eldersburg Elementary School, where students were celebrating "World Week," studying their own ethnic backgrounds. A school survey showed that students' ancestors have come from 41 countries, primarily European ones, says Carol Arbaugh, guidance counselor.

Ms. McKenzie's program fit well into the week's agenda.

"My own personal response was that she was really terrific," Ms. Arbaugh says. "The program was a way of exposing our children and staff and visitors that day to music and languages and dance from all over the world."

Ms. McKenzie, who puts her age at "around 50," began performing before student audiences about 10 years ago in an inner-city Chicago school, where she exposed African-American children to Russian, Greek and Chinese songs to "let them know the white world was a mixture of different cultures."

She has learned many of her songs from Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods.

"I like to find songs that are short and simple," she says. "I like songs that kids can learn in a minute."

Hers is a much sought-after program. Ms. McKenzie logs about 25,000 miles traveling to schools three or four days a week from November to May. Today she performs at Woodsboro Elementary School in Frederick County.

Her musical journey began as a child in Detroit, where her father was a musician and led choral groups made up of auto and steel workers.

"I grew up in a house where everybody could sing," she says. "Dancing was second nature. We were taught to dance with parents, brothers and sisters."

She refined her musical talent at the former International Women's College in Ohio and at the Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Ohio.

She made her way to New York, where she studied modern dance and performed as a singer.

Columbia Records once showed interest in signing her to a recording contract but an agent thwarted the deal, she says.

Ms. McKenzie left New York and eventually landed in Chicago. She tried to research the importance of music in human lives for one university but was unsuccessful.

She ended up instructing teachers on how to instill creativity in children for another institution -- the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Of her effort to research the importance of music, she says that in earlier times, everyone sang and danced as a part of everyday life. Today, music in America is seen as art, and schools gear music education toward careers.

"In other cultures, music is not necessarily art -- it's the people's .. music," she says.

"In Italian villages today, people make up their own songs and entertain each other. I wanted to help teachers see the importance of music as an aspect of everyday life."

When Ms. McKenzie isn't on the road, she relaxes with her husband, Arthur Licht, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois, at their cottage outside Mount Airy. Their acre lot is off the beaten path, providing peace and privacy.

The couple enjoys mountain climbing and has traveled on climbing expeditions in Colorado and Greece, she says. Ms. McKenzie also likes to read.

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