A newsmaker you should know: Purnell helps people make their own music

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Paula Purnell has been using music as a teaching tool for quite some time. Today, she will teach people to make their own music -- and their own instruments.

Ms. Purnell, of Greensburg, who for the past 15 years or so has focused on this region's musical history, is leading a part-history lesson, part-workshop, "Homemade Music in Pennsylvania," at 6 tonight at Carnegie Library, 1507 Library Ave., McKeesport.

The appearance is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, which offers a roster of "Commonwealth speakers," who are available free to nonprofit organizations. Ms. Purnell has been a speaker off and on since 2004

That's how and why the Johnstown native developed the program last year. As a Commonwealth speaker, "you are required to develop a program every couple of years, but in your expertise," she explained.

Ms. Purnell noted that listening to music has changed over the past couple of centuries. While these days music lovers can simply download songs from the Internet, back then, "if you wanted to hear music, you had to make it," she said. "[People] had to make it out of what was available to them, bone, wood or tools."

Ms. Purnell, who sings and plays guitar and the Appalachian lap dulcimer -- the kind that you strum -- also occasionally "messes with the banjo." She performs with the NewLanders, a folk music group that does songs by and about the people of Western Pennsylvania.

In 2010, however, the group found itself reaching beyond this region.

"We did a big project for the Westmoreland Museum of American Art," which sponsored an exhibit of industrial sites, and the museum "invited us to find songs to go with the art. We thought that we were doing things that were local."

However, at the time the museum was involved in the project, called Building a Transatlantic Bridge, with an art museum in Oberhausen, Germany, which has a similar industrial past. That museum sponsored a similar exhibit, and as a result, "we ended up doing concerts in Germany."

She and husband Bruce Adamson also have released six albums of original music, geared toward children. They did their first, "It's Halloween," in 1999 because they noticed so little music for that occasion. Most recently they released "The Monsters' Valentine Ball" -- "it's about monsters in love."

Ms. Purnell has other pursuits. She serves part time on the education faculty of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, from which she received a doctorate, and runs Sense of Place Learning. Sense of Place operates an after-school program at Clairton Middle School.

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Rick Nowlin: rnowlin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3871.


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