Great Acoustics–Seasoned Musician Mentors
When Wilton High School then-sophomore Olivia Benjamin went to her first Acoustic Wilton rehearsal, she was nervous…but not for long.
“I met Joan and was instantly hooked,” she recalls. “It was such a relaxed atmosphere, and I completely fell in love with it.”
Benjamin graduated from WHS this June with her eyes set on a future as a singer-songwriter. She says she’ll miss Acoustic Wilton and Joan, better known to those on the local music scene as Joni Wallace.
Wallace helped create Acoustic Wilton with fellow musician Scott Weber in 2009. The two had met at a party in 2007 and talked music, with Weber expressing a desire to pick up his guitar again. From there, the group’s evolution seemed almost fated.
“I had been playing guitar since I was six,” Weber says, crediting his mother with fostering his love of music. “Before my mom passed away in 2008, she told me I should find a way to do something with my gift.”
The following year, Weber saw Wallace play a community benefit concert at Wilton Congregational Church and loved the concept. He asked Wallace if they could use a similar model to benefit Relay for Life, a cause near to his heart since losing his mother to cancer. Acoustic Wilton was born when Weber and Wallace were joined by musicians Kim Troy, Lauren Mirabile, Patty Perry, Dave Keefe, Chris Brown, Tim Geaney, and Amy Jonsson to perform shows to benefit Relay for Life.
The group also put out a Relay Sessions CD, which included the song “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield.
“Some friends and I had played at my son, Christian’s, second grade year-end show, and I got thinking about ‘Unwritten,’” he says. “I thought, how powerful would it be to have kids sing the chorus on the recording? So we did.”
That sparked the idea to expand Acoustic Wilton to include kids, immediately unearthing a mountain of musical talent within Wilton’s youth.
“The question was raised: where can student singer-songwriters perform?” says Weber. “The kids wanted other ways to stand out.”
Both Weber and Wallace are quick to dispel the idea that Acoustic Wilton is any sort of talent show or that auditions are involved.
“In the beginning, we’d ask around. ‘Who’s on their game? Who’s really doing it with their music?’” he says. “Time went on, and kids turned us on to other kids. It just sort of fell into place.”
The first combined adult-student project for Acoustic Wilton was a Play It Forward CD to benefit Wilton Education Foundation in 2011, along with an annual concert that still takes place every March. More adults who’ve supported them along the way include Matt Greene, Dan Berg, and Kelley Addison.
Even for kids already involved in music, Wallace says Acoustic Wilton offers a different and much-needed outlet.
“Students may be engaged in structured music programs–lessons, choir, band, with sheet music and rehearsals,” she says. “But this is just a very cool musical performance experience for both the students and the adults. It makes them step up as performers.”
Benjamin agrees. “I learned something extremely important from the adult members of Acoustic Wilton: How to be comfortable on stage. Joan is completely at home onstage, so playing with her throughout high school definitely helped me loosen up,” she says. “They’ve helped me grow as both an artist and a singer, and I will never forget that.”
“When we first start rehearsing, it’s a little clunky, but seeing all the artists start to gel and sync up is totally radical,” Benjamin says of the collaboration. “By the fourth practice or so, playing is absolutely awesome. The night of the show, the smiles on everyone’s faces are amazing. Getting to know all the artists and to grow and mature with them is fantastic.”
Wallace says it’s witnessing that sort of personal growth that makes it all worthwhile.
“The really, really special moments are when you get a student who isn’t the lead in the musical, doesn’t get the solo in the choir, but gets their moment on stage with us. The courage it takes some of them is amazing to watch, and then they get out there and kill it.”
Though Weber stepped away from Acoustic Wilton in 2017, leaving Wallace to lead the group, he says he hopes to one day see their organic musical journey come full circle.
“We hope the legacy continues. Maybe one day one of our Acoustic Wilton students will come back to run it.”