Bernice Lewis is a busy woman. Twenty years after being a “trailing spouse” and following her husband, Williams Outing Club Director Scott Lewis, to the College, Bernice Lewis teaches private songwriting lessons, leads a Winter Study course, plays in the Ladies Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra as a founding member, travels with her History Alive presentation and, of course, continues to write and perform her own songs.
For Bernice Lewis, who was born and raised outside of Boston, life wasn’t always so busy. She started playing guitar in her teens, but after a fire left her house destroyed and someone stole her guitar, she had to give up music for a time.
After college at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Bernice Lewis went on to graduate school. During her time there, she bought a guitar and began to play seriously. “At the time, I had a job as a high school teacher and would play [guitar] after grading papers,” she said with a smile. After moving to Arizona to work as an administrator, she started to think about doing open mic nights, then took her new independence and “got carried away.”
After this unusual track through her career and life, Lewis is thankful to be where she is now. “I’ve paid my dues,” she said. “It’s definitely been a journey.”
Best known at the College for the annual Williams Outdoor Orientation For Living as First-Years (WOOLF) concert, in which she performs her original music and invites her Winter Study students to perform their own songs, Lewis has become a recognizable figure around campus. Her Winter Study class, titled “Contemporary American Songwriting,” accepts only 14 students per year and is always in high demand. The students in her course aren’t necessarily accomplished musicians or experienced songwriters, although there are some who are. Students spend the first week of her course listening to famous songs to hear the words and to focus on the structure of the lyrics and music. They then move on to start writing their own songs and critiquing each other’s songs, a project that culminates in a standing-room-only performance of their new music in Goodrich Hall.
I knew from the WOOLF concert that the Grand Canyon is one of Bernice Lewis’s biggest inspirations. When I brought this up in an interview, she smiled. “The Grand Canyon is my religion,” she clarified. The Grand Canyon is where she and Scott Lewis met in their 20s, she said. When she moved to Arizona, the red landscape was a stark contrast to the grayness of the Northeast that she had known all her life. All of the reds and the rocks felt like pieces of herself which she wouldn’t have found if not for moving out there to live, Lewis explained. Her songs clearly show a strong influence from the Grand Canyon, from their outdoorsy themes to the color imagery. Every spring, Bernice and Scott Lewis take a group of about eight students from the College for a service trip to the Grand Canyon. The break-out trip allows the couple to go back to their favorite place at least once a year, and they love the region so much that Bernice Lewis is hoping to live there part-time someday soon.
Continuing to talk about Bernice Lewis’s future plans, I asked what role she foresees music playing in them. She took a moment to think, and the mood turned reflective. There were many times she was very discouraged, and the music industry is a very tough place, Lewis said. She could focus on other pursuits considering her three college degrees, she added, but she mainly wants to continue making and sharing music as much as she can. In a “perfect world,” as she put it, she would expand the Ladies Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra so that it would embrace a more level playing field, she would spend more time away from Williamstown in the winter and she would encourage more people to explore the arts. “If we ever reach a point where we can live together peacefully,” she said with a knowing smile, “we will have to do something with our time, and art is a great thing to do with our time and to communicate with each other.”
Knowing that there are many budding artists and songwriters at the College waiting for their moment, Bernice Lewis gave some last advice. “The one thing I know is that if you [feel like] you have to do it, then you’re going to find a way to do it,” she said. “You’re going to find something great to do.” She cautioned against overreliance on technology, warning that technology has changed the way music is distributed and that it gives people today an unreal vision of being a musician. Ultimately, Lewis said, she has learned a lot from her experience with music and wouldn’t discourage people from trying.
“I want to continue what I’m doing for as long as possible,” she said. And for as long as she wants to be here, the College and the Williamstown community will embrace Bernice Lewis as a person, a teacher and a musician.