Diane Aitken - Transcript

Transcript of Diane Aitken
Interviewee: Diane Aitken
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Date: December 27, 2013
Place: Edgewater Historical Society, 5358 N Ashland, Chicago, Illinois
Transcriber: Martin Stewart
Time: 25:43

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: My name is Dorothy Nygren; I’m interviewing Diane Aitken at the Edgewater Historical Society on December 27, 2013. And Diane is one of our 2014 Living Treasures of Edgewater. So to start the interview Diane, let me just say congratulations to this award and thank you so very much for all the volunteer efforts you’ve made on behalf of the Edgewater community. It’s inspirational for other people. To get the interview started I’d just like to ask you a few little questions and you can go in any direction you want that you feel is important because this is your story and we want it to reflect what your interests are. So, could you tell us a little bit about your early background? Were you born in Edgewater or were you born somewhere else?

DA: I was born Tennessee, in Maryville Tennessee, which is close to Knoxville and close to the Smokey Mountains. I grew up there, lived in Tennessee all my life except for two years when I moved up here when I married David Aitken and we moved up here in 1983.

DN: Did you move to Edgewater in 1983?

DA: Yes we did.

DN: Wonderful. Now, you moved here as a private individual and you started your life as a private individual. But at some point you became engaged in community efforts and activities. So can you tell us a little bit about that?


DA: I am a musician. Which I suppose would be understood from the conversation. And up until I moved here had always found ways to use music, enjoy music, play, whatever…. And the first year I lived here, I was new to the city at a new job. We had a life to get going so for about a year I just didn’t have time to worry about it. But I began missing music and I had made some friends at work, but I was missing my friends and wanted to find new friends. And so it was a selfish goal on my part. I wanted to find some way I could make and play music and find some new friends. And that was what motivated me to find what was then the Edgewater Singers.

DN: What attracted you to the Edgewater singers in particular?


DA: Well, it was the first people I found out about. My husband had started working at the ECC [Edgewater Community Council], the Edgewater whatever that was…. And through his work there he found out about the Marine Room Benefit and he said that they said it was going to have the Edgewater Singers in it. And he didn’t know what that was and I didn’t either but I decided that sound promising so I signed up for the committee on entertainment. And I met Paul Boyd and asked him who the Edgewater Singers were and said I played the piano. Would that be any help them? And he said, “Oh yeah.” So he invited me to come to a rehearsal a couple of weeks hence, which I did. And they had also invited Bill Chen who is the director of Iliana Singers at the time to possibly direct the group. And so I met Bill and the six or seven singers that there were at the time. And then it turned out Bill said he was overloaded. His wife said he couldn’t take on another group….which left me. And then I said, “What are you looking for? “And they said, “Well we need some organization of our rehearsals. We waste too much time at rehearsals.”

DN: I think you said at the time they needed a director… to take over. And when I was looking at the information it struck me that there were six or seven singers…and why they needed a director. But you didn’t say who was directing before that or why they needed a new director. So, maybe you can fill in a little history with that.


DA: I think they didn’t have a director. It was a committee and they just met together. They were a group of friends. The Edgewater singers began with four people…three of them are still in the neighborhood: Paul Boyd, Claire Connelly and Terry Stevenson. And I don’t know who the fourth one was. And they mostly, they say, they went Christmas caroling and decided it was great fun and so they wanted to start singing together other than Christmas….and so they began and then a few friends joined them. And I think they just decided as a group what they were going to sing and when I asked what they needed they said they needed someone to organize the rehearsals because they waste too much time deciding what to do. And so I said, “Oh well I can do that.” So it started out just… I was playing the piano and directing rehearsals and then the time came for the concert so I had to direct that.

DN: Was that the first concert or did they do others?

DA: No, they had had concerts before and it began with Paul Boyd’s dream to have music in homes. He wanted to have house concerts. And so, they would learn a program, choose one of their homes that was big enough to accommodate their friends, and they would invite their friends over…they bought food and drinks and got the word out that they would listen to the concert. So after the concert then there was the party… and that was his dream…and they did that I suppose 2, 3, 4 years. I don’t know exactly how many they did. And the first year I directed we had a spring concert at Paul’s house….actually a Christmas concert at my house… the spring concert at Paul’s house. But now the group is beginning to grow. And so where you can have, you know, six or eight or ten singers and their friends sit in a house, as the group got larger, then the audience got bigger and then it was no longer possible to have it in homes. Shall I go ahead with this history thing?

DN: Sure. Great.


DA: So then, we wanted to have the concert where more people could come if they wanted to. And invite the whole neighborhood, everybody, our neighbors and not just our friends. And so the armory [Broadway Armory] have been redeveloped and opened and so we approached them about having a community offering there. We could have a concert there in the Armory and invite the neighborhood to come. So that’s what we did for the Christmas concert. And then in the spring Claire Connelly, maybe Kathy Gemperle knew people at Mundelein College. And there was an auditorium over there they were able to get for us free, I think. I don’t remember that we paid anything for it. And so we would have the spring concert at Mundelein’s auditorium. And that’s what we did for several years. It grew from there though.

DN: So at the time you stepped down as Director of the Edgewater Singers, how many singers were there, and how many concerts were you doing, and how many people do you think attended?


DA: OK. Well… singers we varied between like eighteen and twenty five. The very last year, it was larger because several singers who had not been singing in a while returned to sing with us last year and that was very fun. And so probably 20, 22, 23, 24 somewhere in there was kind of the max number. But many years it would be 18 or 20 depending on people’s lives. If they got busy or moved on, they did. We were having our concerts by then at Bethany Church, because I had been the Director of Music there for a while. And it was my neighborhood and that was convenient and that was fun, and that place seats maybe 300, 250, whatever how many people fit in that church. And we were still having the two concerts, three concerts. However in addition to those, we usually always performed at least once at the Admiral when it was there. Kathy Gemperle’s mother lived there and Judy Collins’ mother lived there. So we went there to sing for them and all residents that cared to come. And then we had different…once we sang at Bethany once when they were dedicating their organ. We sang at a Relay for Life event. We sang in the Swedish Museum for a 911 celebration. We were invited to do different things besides the concerts. We didn’t do a lot because this is a really busy group of people and to get them together was not easy. And we didn’t want to be… we just wanted it to stay fun and not turn into a job. So we just focused on our two concerts and then if something came up and everyone was agreeable…

DN: Kathy said in her nomination that you were the unpaid musical and artistic director, business manager, secretary, publicist, booking agency, technical advisor and grunt. And that now the Edgewater Singers has a Board of Directors – directors of publicity and development and a paid artistic director. And that you helped them move from this little group of six or seven singers to this… still volunteer and amateur organization, but certainly expanded greatly with the help of your husband David.

DA: Exactly, and I was going to say don’t forget that he did a lot of work too.

DN: So in terms of taking the organization from just a committee structure to something that was a more defined organization, were you responsible for doing that Diane?


DA: I would say in a way…and in a way it happened… I don’t remember exactly when, but l we’ll say in early 2003 – 4 somewhere around in there…it began to feel like a lot. And it was. And up until it began feeling like a lot, it was fine. And then when it did, I said to the group, “You know, I just don’t think I…David and I can do anyhow all of this anymore and so we are going to need some help.” They said… first they panicked and said, “Are you quitting?” “No, but there is a lot that has to be done and we’re just ready for somebody else to start doing the work.” And so they said, “Well, write down everything that has to happen. You know, make a list.” So I did, and it was about a four-paged, single spaced, typed list of everything I could think of that had to happen for the concert take place. And we had a meeting and I handed it out and I said, “Well, here’s…here’s what happens.” And their jaws dropped and they said, “Well what do you want to do?” And I said, “Well I want to direct. I want to direct the concerts and I want to direct the rehearsals and I want to have some input into the music selection. But I don’t want to do that whole big job. That was a huge big job. And we’ve got plenty of people who could do that. And that’s what I like to do. And none of the rest of that stuff.” And so they then formed the committees and got organized without my input…you know, how they were going to carve it up and they did. So that much of it was in place when I left.

DN: What about, Kathy said there was a paid artistic director that the Edgewater Singers paid. Where did the funding come for that?


DA: They had to raise the money up until then, until I left, we had an envelope system. And so every concert we’d each put in $20. See if that would cover the music expense and if it did fine and if it didn’t then we put in some more. And we got contributions at the concerts which we used to give back some to whoever hosted the concert…the church to pay their air and light bills and turning on the power for us. And that pretty well worked. I kept the envelope in my safe and wrote down on front of it what I spent the money for. And if I ran out, I said, “Well we need some more.” But clearly, with these kinds of obligations, they are into fundraising now, they become a 501(c)(3) organization. They have some fundraisers. They also, I hope it will last… I don’t know how long they think they can keep giving free concerts. That was the goal. That was the point early on. And I don’t know, you know, if they can keep that up. They’re doing it so far. So, there’ll be a plan for grants, I think. And it’s a very different organization. It’s huge for one thing. Marieluise Kailing is a friend of mine and she sends me DVDs of the concerts that I don’t attend. Oh man, the Christmas concert must have been thirty-forty people singing… the singers plus the director now works at Columbia College and he brought eight singers from Columbia College to do some stuff he wanted to do. So, it’s a big outfit.

DN: So even though you didn’t begin the Edgewater Singers. It started out as a Paul Boyd vision/dream, you took it from being a little group of people in somebody’s home to expand to this organization that now has a paid artistic director; has enlarged itself to thirty to forty people singing, depending on who is available; doing two concerts a year plus other concerts where other people could get together; and outreach to the community. And that is fabulous. And we are so fortunate in Edgewater to have someone like you as a Living Treasure to do so much for the community. I’d like to ask you….you had said that when you first got involved in the Edgewater Singers it was because you wanted a place where you could express your musical feelings and talents. But you could’ve just stayed one little member of the group. Now you were asked to step up and take over. That was a big job. What prompted you to do that instead of saying," Oh no I can’t." Why did you take that next step?


DA: Well, let’s see. I liked to do that. I had played in groups before. I had never been in a group where I was the leader per se. But I could tell that these people had some talent and they surely wanted to sing. And I just…it didn’t occur to me to refuse them because they asked for my help and I felt qualified to help. I had taken one choral conducting class. I’m not a choral person. I play flute and piano. But music’s music and I said that from the beginning, “I can’t teach you how to sing, but I can polish and teach you what I know and we can go from there.” And that worked for them. I think that’s one of the differences in the new direction is because now they have PhD choral directors who know everything about choral directing and how to sing. And the group reflects that. They sing harder stuff. We tended to choose things…the balance in working with this group was this group of individuals from every aspect of – “I’m just doing this for fun”; “I do this so I can stay later and we can have wine and food”; “I really love music”; “I really don’t sing that well but I really love music”; “I want to do classical”; “I want to do pop.” Everybody have their own goal, what they wanted to do. So, that was a huge part of the challenge was to try to satisfy all of these different interests. It’s not in every concert, it’s overall. We’d say, “Okay let’s have more classical in this concert. We’ll do more pop in the next.” But I also liked the mix in the concerts and I liked having different styles. I thought the audiences liked that and it provided for a variety for us as well as for them. But if we tried something hard and it…we weren’t getting it, I just took it off the program and said, “Well we just can’t do that.”

DN: Now what about the day-to-day nitty-gritty organizational aspects? You certainly had no background in training…or being a neighborhood organization that does community out reach for example. That was not your training in social services. Was that something that just grew as you went along?


DA: More of that stuff came from the members of the group than it did from me. The group… pretty much everybody but one or two people… for a really long time lived in Edgewater. And they included people like Kathy Gemperle and Paul Boyd and Claire Connelly… all these people who were just feet on the ground out there and doing those kinds of things. And they were the ones that pretty much drove anything that we did along more than me. I will say one of the things. I’m not a community activist person. I’m not a big volunteer person out working in the neighborhood. But what I felt like, and the reason I didn’t want to be paid for this job, was because all of these other people in the group were those people out there doing all those things. And if they found being in this… in the Edgewater Singers… provided them energy and enjoyment and made them feel better able to go out and do all that work, then by sort of osmosis I participated, because I helped all these other people who do that. Now I had somebody tell me one time, “Now that sounds really lame.” And when I told it, I said, “Yeah, well it’s better than doing nothing.” I mean I was doing it and it was a gift from me to these people and whatever they can get out of it.

DN: Well it was a very important gift, because you became the facilitator for their energies.


DA: To this degree. And I do believe that in those days, and I hope it continues to be true; we were very much a community of friends. And they were totally up for me being in charge and musically making us sound the very best we could sound. But we were also best friends. And we stayed after and socialized and when we had problems where we went to and we had joys where we went to.

DN: That’s remarkable. Would you say that there is anything special or unique about Edgewater as compared with other communities that you have lived in or experienced?

DA: Well, it’s very different from anything I’ve ever lived in. So, I came here from Nashville, I lived in a community called Donaldson, and was involved there. But that’s a suburban type environment. Edgewater was just overwhelming; the whole city was overwhelming for somebody like me. And living in a building I thought was a very odd concept. People live in houses, but it turns out we bought a three flat and we lived in our building. But the more I was there and the more I became familiar with the neighborhood, it was just amazing how diverse it was, how much it had to offer, in terms of people. That’s what I think is the special part about Edgewater. Actually anybody in Chicago is ever going to say the same thing. I don’t think that makes us unique among neighborhoods. But it’s how I found it to be true.

DN: You think that diversity is the same in other neighborhoods of Chicago?

DA: Well I don’t really know.

DN: Great. What would you say up till now is your most significant personal achievement? Not making $1 million, or composing a song but looking at everything you’ve done up till now, because there is still a lot ahead; what would you say is your most significant personal achievement? We can come back to it if you‘d like ‘cause I’m throwing it at you.

DA: Let me think about that.

DN: The other question I would have is: What advice would you give the younger generation?

DA: In general or musically? In general?

DN: Well both if you wish. It’s your story.


DA: I’m prejudiced towards music of course and I taught piano. I work now with students at Elgin Community College. I accompany voice and clarinet students there from all ages. And it’s interesting how many students I’ve had who really really love music and want to play music, some to a more successful degree than others in terms of the level of difficulty or the polish or whatever. But if it speaks to anybody then it’s important in my opinion. And so I would say - if a young person is interested in music or whatever they’re interested in, to just dive in. I know that now, and I found this to be true with my students, they…the trend is to try everything. So every student I had was also going to dance and art and whatever. And I think in the beginning that’s a good thing, but you have to find out what your good at and what you love to do, then I think focusing in on that will bring rewards unimaginable. I think there is something to be said… and I consider myself a person who is interested in lot of different things, and I do a lot of different things…. I decided after I got my Masters in piano that I wanted…I want… part of the reason I did that was I wanted to know if I’m focused on it and practiced hours and hours a day - how good a pianist I could be? “Cause I didn’t want to get to the end of the road and say well I could’ve or I should’ve…

DN: (skip)… to continue your thought?


DA: I was just going to say… so I formed at the level, and to which I have not returned, for the most part because I knew that just playing the piano in and of itself was not a satisfying life for me. I wanted to use the piano, which is how I got with the Edgewater Singers, to play with other people. That would be the point for me. And so that’s I would say to students. Develop some chops. Get good at something.

DN: This is your story Diane. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about life in Edgewater, life in general or your thoughts?

DA: I would say, first thank you this award. I am honored and pleased to receive it. But I also am receiving it and feel honored because of the Edgewater Singers. And I would hope that any benefit that comes from this award for me will expand to include the Edgewater Singers and their new life and appreciation for what they’ve done before and support for them moving forward. So that’s what I would hope would come from this.

DN: And to go back to the question I threw at you. Shall we just drop it or do you have any thoughts on that? About your most significant or happiest achievement?

DA: It’s just about the word “achievement” is hard. I’ve done a lot of stuff and I’ve enjoyed it and I have a family who are supreme in my interests…and they all…. If there is an achievement it might be that between us David and I have five children all of whom make their own living. Do their own thing…are productive citizens and that seems pretty amazing in this day and age. So we’re proud of them. We have a wonderful life in Huntley Illinois now. We do things that we enjoy doing. It just can’t get any better than that I think.

DN: Well, I don’t think we can say anything else in this interview. That’s like a final wonderful conclusion to it. Thank you very much Diane. I’ll stop the interview now.