Drumming up ‘Food for the Soul’: Student percussionists perform at homeless shelter

When Rutgers Percussion Ensemble director Joe Tompkins brought his students to perform at the Ozanam Family Shelter in Edison, New Jersey, little did he know he would spend that December afternoon juggling a pair of sticky toddlers.

Tompkins, area coordinator of the percussion program at Mason Gross, has performed film scores, as part of Broadway productions, and with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. But his job on this particular day was in some ways trickier: serving as a viewing perch for two tiny shelter residents vying for his attention.

No matter: Tompkins says he was more than happy to expose residents of all ages to the nine student percussion group’s performance, which featured 1930s and '40s ragtime, as well as an original composition by student Joseph LaVecchia.

“One of the main reasons we are in music is to inspire people,” Tompkins says. “[A shelter] is a great place to do that.”

The Ozanam Family Shelter offers temporary and emergency lodging, meals, physical and mental health assessments, crisis counseling, assistance with housing, and employment placement, among other services, to single women and 
Students perform ragtime for the residents of a local family shelter.
families in Middlesex County. (New Brunswick’s Ozanam Inn serves men.) Tompkins and the Rutgers Percussion Ensemble were visiting as part of a community service music series established in 2005 by his wife, musician Kelly Hall-Tompkins.
Hall-Tompkins founded Music Kitchen: Food for the Soul after she performed a violin solo at a New York City shelter where she and Tompkins were volunteering. Ever since, the series has brought professionally trained musicians to perform in homeless shelters around the city.

Hall-Tompkins still recalls the impact that first performance had on the shelter residents.

“Some [shelter residents had] never heard a live note of music,” she says. She realized that the “warmth and accessibility” of chamber music could raise the residents’ spirits and inspire them to get back on their feet.

Hall-Tompkins says she brought the Mason Gross students to Ozanam to introduce the musicians to “the practical applications of what we do in our ivory towers.”

Besides, she says: “Music touches places where [other art] can’t. Music speaks in profound ways.”

On this particular afternoon, one of the residents, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Sgt. Ayeisha Flicmore, cannot contain her excitement. She records the performance and tells Hall-Tompkins she plans to play it back again.

“They gave us energy and [we] returned it,” Flicmore says after the concert. “They don’t play music like this anymore.”

For Flicmore, the ragtime music brought back old memories.

“As soon as I hear the first piece [I thought]: ‘Oh, my gosh, I am by the TV watching cartoons—black-and-white cartoons.’ ”
Joe Tompkins gives a young shelter resident a better view of the
performance. Photos by Gregory Routt.

The experience seemed to touch the students as well.

Tom O’Hara says that playing at the shelter was a “more a personal connection versus playing at a hall.”

Student Erik Marlin agrees.

“It puts things into perspective,” he says, noting how easy it can be to forget that there are people in need.

O’Hara says: “I’m from Edison, and I didn’t know about this shelter.”

To some residents, awareness of their situation is as important as the students’ performance.

“People should know that [there are] people out there who need help,” resident Velma Witkowski says. “[There are] a lot of people who need some joy.”

Posted April 2015