Conveying Armenian heritage through song

Published: Wednesday December 02, 2009

cover.

Boston - Pianist and performer Houry Yapoujian Schmeizl sang and played Armenian songs to her daughter Jacqueline Lucine before she was even born. They were the same songs and nursery rhymes her parents sang to her as a child in Beirut, and then later in the United States.

"I hadn't thought about these songs for many years, but the words and melodies came flowing from inside as if I were still a little girl singing around the Christmas tree at my aunt and uncle's house in Montreal. Singing brought back my most cherished childhood memories," Ms. Schmeizl explains.

"Although my ethnic heritage was always important to me, suddenly, after years of focusing on my work, education and music, I was compelled to reflect more seriously on my heritage and began to grasp the importance of passing this rich heritage onto my daughter Jacqueline."

Just how to pass on the Armenian musical heritage was a challenge for Ms. Schmeizl, who owns the Piano Academy at Heart Pond and chairs the annual International Folk Music Festival in Westford, Mass.

"From the language, the music and the traditions to the entire culture and meaning of being an Armenian in America, I needed her to understand our history, our strength and our pride," she recalls. "I needed her to feel the joy and comfort of growing up in a close-knit family surrounded by grandparents, cousins and other relatives. But, frankly, I had no idea exactly how to go about instilling these feelings."

As Jacqueline's arrival approached, Ms. Schmeizl asked friends to suggest CDs, sheet music and children's educational materials in Armenian and English. The difficulty of finding such resources convinced her to record her own collection of Armenian songs with bilingual sheet music and lyrics.  Family members contributed songs, poems, and pictures from Armenia, and soon the Reflections of my Childhood collection was born.

The compilation consists of a large-format songbook and companion CD of 24 classic Armenian children's songs, poems and prayers. These include alphabet, counting, and Christmas songs, as well as transportation, patriotic, and folk themes. Lyrics are provided in Armenian, English and phonetic transliteration, along with sheet music for piano, guitar and voice.  

Ms. Schmeizl arranged, performed and recorded all of the songs in collaboration with family members. Sister Elise Yapoujian Vaughn sang and played flute, husband Mark played acoustic guitar, brother-in-law Graig added percussion, and mother Marie Yapoujian painstakingly translated and transliterated the Armenian. Even daughter Jacqueline sang and recited on several tracks.

A recent second printing features six accompaniment tracks for singing and teaching purposes. The full-color illustrations were drawn by Armenian children from Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Church in Chelmsford, Mass., where Ms. Schmeizl serves as principal and teacher.

The Yapoujian sisters, Houry and Elise, began performing mini-concerts for Armenian private schools, churches and special events last spring in the New England and New York area.  After twenty years as a pianist with the American Repertory Ballet, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Princeton Opera, Ms. Schmeizl finds she is just as thrilled to bring these Armenian family favorites to a wider audience.

"Children should have fun while learning their language through song," she says. "The joy of these songs is not only in the music, but in the sharing of our cultural identity and the passing of our heritage from one generation to another."

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Sargsyan with his aide and translator Nairi Petrosyan (left) during the recent NATO Summit in Wales. Courtesy image

Calendar of Events

In New York for the UN week, Armenia's president Serge Sargsyan will speak at Columbia University on September 24; for details about this and other upcoming Armenian happenings in America consult the Calendar of Events.