Category Archives: Performing Arts

Moving Mountains

For January 1, 2000, my mom and stepdad helped our family assemble a time capsule which we would open exactly 20 years later. Among other things, we were asked to respond to a list of questions about our favourite things. For my favourite sports team, after some thought, I put the SBS varsity basketball team. My son’s sports career had not yet begun, and after years of running the scoreboard for home games, I felt a deep connection to the program.

As I processed the similar question “What is your favourite singer or rock group?” during the middle school bonding trip at Camp Becket last September, I realized that I couldn’t go with the semi-obvious “The SBS Rock Band” as I teach two separate groups, one each in the middle and one upper schools, and even if I felt favoritism (which I never would!), I wouldn’t dare show it. Furthermore, I love so many different musicians that I could never settle permanently on one favourite. Sitting there surrounded by 43 middle school girls, thinking back to summers with my son listening to our phones and sharing music, I settled on Taylor Swift as my favourite singer of the moment. There were in fact around ten other students who made the same choice, and we settled together in a group on the floor waiting for other groups to form.

Driving into school this morning, Ms. Swift’s song “Long Live” came up on my phone. The cover image shows her hair flying out behind her as she prepares to strum a chord on her Les Paul electric guitar, pure power in a sparkly dress. I thought back to last week’s Upper School Rock Band rehearsal for last night’s informal end-of-term concert. One of the combos performed “Alice” by Avril Lavigne last night. Those who know Joyce, our lead singer on this song and typically one of our quieter students, got a surprise and a treat. During rehearsal, we plugged her through the keyboard amp, and the power of her voice as she sang “I, I’ll survive / When the world’s crashin’ down / When I fall and hit the ground / I’ll just turn myself around / Don’t you try to stop me!” just about blew me forward into the piano. Later, as we discussed costuming (with the informal concerts, we have a lot more latitude than with the three big performances of the year), Jin having already determined that hoodies would be acceptable, Joyce asked if she could wear ripped jeans. She could, and we settled on jeans (ripped or otherwise) and SBS hoodies as our costume for the night.

“Cause for a moment a band of thieves / In ripped up jeans got to rule the world.” – Taylor Swift

In the second year of the SBS Rock Band, then known as PW Rock (PW for “Performance Workshop,” the original name of the course), we set themes for each concert, and discovered as the year progressed and we were growing together and as individuals, the themes we chose reflected that growth. You saw that especially in the ani difranco songs that framed the year, from the in-your-face attitude of “not a pretty girl” (“I am not a pretty girl. That is not what I do. I ain’t no damsel in distress and I don’t need to be rescued. So put me down, punk…”) to the affirmation of “32 flavors” (“I’m not saying that I’m a saint / I just don’t want to live that way / no, I will never be a saint / but I will always say / squint your eyes and look closer / I’m not between you and your ambition / I am a poster girl with no poster / I am thirty-two flavors and then some”), the lyrics reflected the girls’ take on their own lives and their place in the world.

“You knew our lives / Would never be the same / You held your head like a hero / On a history book page / It was the end of a decade / But the start of an age / Long live the walls we crashed through…” – Taylor Swift

I sometimes wonder about the long-term effects of performing in a group where you are not only allowed but also encouraged to get up in someone’s face, to affirm without challenge or question that you have the right to be exactly who you are and think exactly what you think, and to do so publicly and be recognized for it. I’m sure they remember – two former members of my Humanities 7 class who are now off at college recently shared with each other, and with me, memories of writing and performing their seventh grade play, and I know that former members of the SBS Rock Bands have also stayed in touch. At its best, rock music is not simply about rebellion, but about breaking shackles and emerging free and whole and complete, in the process freeing others to do the same. I hope and trust that spirit has animated the group down through the years and that spirit is being passed on. Somehow, I suspect it is.

“Long live all the mountains we moved / I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you / I was screaming long live that look on your face / And bring on all the pretenders / One day, we will be remembered / Hold on to spinning around / Confetti falls to the ground / May these memories break our fall / Will you take a moment, promise me this / That you’ll stand by me forever / But if God forbid fate should step in / And force us into a goodbye / If you have children some day / When they point to the pictures / Please tell them my name / Tell them how the crowds went wild / Tell them how I hope they shine.” – Taylor Swift


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Filed under Athletics, Gender, In the Classroom, Performing Arts, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

In Community

All knowledge is held in community.Peter Sellars

As I was approaching the dining commons of my son’s high school, I heard someone shout “Mr. Ivey? No way!” One of my son’s best friends walked over to me, a huge smile on his face, and wrapped me in a bear hug. We spoke for a bit, and he pulled out his phone to get a picture to send to my son. The picture taken, I continued on my way to dinner.

I had returned to Andover to attend the inaugural ceremony honoring five Alumni of Distinction. Such ceremonies reveal much about schools – whom do you choose to honor, and why? Some schools honor the most famous, others potential donors. Others look to find someone who truly exemplifies the school in a special way. Andover? Their motto is “Non sibi,” “Not for self,” and that thread ran through the lives of all five of their honorees. Even with the obvious choice of an ex-President, George H.W. Bush, Andover chose to focus on his lifetime of service, devoting a third of their write-up to his time in the military and focusing on achievements such as the end of the Cold War, the creation of the EPA, and the Americans with Disablities Act. Another honoree was Wendy Ewald, a photographer who has turned her work to advancing the cause of social justice. Chemist William Knowles facilitated the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and biographer Stacy Schiff exemplifies a life where you take the time to “slow down and think.” (Schiff) And then there was Peter Sellars.

His name was vaguely familiar to me (and not just because it is only one letter off from the great actor Peter Sellers), but it quickly became clear that he was truly something special. Like all the honorees or their representatives, he spoke passionately about what his experience at the school had meant to him. Most particularly, he spoke of his experiences with the arts faculty in the early ’70s. Noting that in these days of NCLB, arts programs have been decimated for over a decade now, he spoke movingly of the importance of schools like Andover where the arts continue to play an important role: “The arts teach us to think, not what to think.” (Sellars) He spoke, too, of the importance of the arts in teaching us to “recognize the distance between dream and reality and every day make that distance a little less.” (Sellars) His words would resonate, I should think, with members of the Stoneleigh-Burnham community as well.

Abut three years ago, Stoneleigh-Burnham instituted our own “Distinguished Alumna Award.” Karen von Lengen ’69 was the first recipient. Ms. von Lengen, a noted architect and professor at the University of Virginia, points out in the first paragraph of her personal statement that she helped with post-Katrina reconstruction, worked to develop sustainable and emergency housing, initiated dialogues on the relationship of ethics and aesthetics, and co-founded a university initiative to improve the environment. The next two recipients, Dr. Denise Bruner ’70 and Judith Howard Whitney-Terry ’56B P’77, also exemplify service. Board Chair Kathy Opdycke ’70 wrote that “Denise’s efforts to help others reflect the spirit of a Stoneleigh-Burnham student. She has broken the barriers of gender and race in her profession…” and Ms. Whitney-Terry joined the Peace Corps 31 years after her graduation, continuing to maintain ties to the organization and to work in civic service.

Some weeks ago, I was participating in an #isedchat on Twitter when Lorri Carroll of Hamden Hill School asked me how we determined which of our alumni/ae are successes. My instinctive answer was that they themselves get to decide that. As I thought more deeply about it, I realized that when we talk about our graduates, the phrase “S/He’s doing well” primarily communicates that that person is happy in life. The ensuing conversation helps us figure out why. If the mission of our school is to help our students be their own best selves, by definition the measure of our success varies with each individual graduate.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting the new Chair of the Alumnae Board, Sharon Lewis Gaffey ’68S. Academic Dean Alex Bogel and Dean of Students John Larson were also present, and at one point in time Alex and I embarked on one of our many reflective dialogues as we were taking turns describing what was going on in the Upper and Middle Schools and how early growth in young adolescents is supported and enhanced as they continue in our school. Ms. Gaffey commented on how much she would have enjoyed being in these classes, remembering the classes she herself had taken, becoming for a moment the SBS student she used to be and in many ways still was. She concluded by saying that the school had given her the gift of the ability and will to use her own voice.

Listening to her, I couldn’t help but think back to when the school had renovated Reception and the front lobby. One morning, I happened to be passing through when some young alumnae had just returned. “Everything’s so different!” they lamented. I responded, “Yes, it looks different, but walk around. You’ll find that deep down, it’s the same school you knew.” And of course, it was. A sort of collective soul animates everything we are doing, have always done, and continue to do. It is what makes Stoneleigh-Burnham what it is and what brings together members of the community from every era. Every good school has it. And with the best schools, that collective soul works together to elevate everyone.

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Filed under Alumnae, On Education, Performing Arts, The Girls School Advantage, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

From Calgary And Back: A Letter of Thanks From PB

The Owl has finally landed, and our three excellent speakers are back in the fold. In preparation for the competition in Calgary, our work actually began in July: Caroline Lord and Mary Pura enrolled in Debate Camp and spent the week writing, polishing, and rehearsing. Jane Logan spent a month acting in New York City and New Haven. They return to us with rave reviews, very high marks, and several awards. I am still receiving emails from other coaches about these three. They loved their performances, and they loved the way they represented SBS in Canada.


It starts with the Head of School, administration, and faculty—thank you for supporting their voices. An undertaking this large is never effected seamlessly, and I hope their return to Academia flows smoothly.

Karen Pleasant—thank you for navigating these waters. This trip threw you some weather challenges, but you communicated with all concerned parties, and you remembered all that was necessary. Your instincts were, in a phrase, spot on.

Kim Mancuso–thank you for your assistance with Jane Logan and Lillian Hellman’s translation of The Lark; your genius has now spilled over to our program. Bravo!


Mary Pura made the finals in After-Dinner Speaking. Jane Logan made the finals in both After-Dinner and Dramatic Interpretation.  Caroline Lord finished the week with a strong B+ average. There were 132 speakers and 44 teams from all corners of the earth.  Jane, for the second straight year, has been invited to join the US team which will compete, next March, in South Africa.

Thank you SBS—-it takes a village!

– PB (Paul Bassett, Debate Teacher)

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Filed under Performing Arts, School Happenings, The Faculty Perspective, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

The Magical World of Musician

I used to think making music was magic. I guess, after doing it, I still do. – Lisa Bastarache. ’99 (from her yearbook page)

I will never forget the first time I saw Dar Williams in concert. She opened for the Indigo Girls at the Mullins Center at UMass way back in the mid-90’s, and they invited her to play one of the encores. Alone on stage with her guitar, she transfixed the approximately 8,000 people in attendance with heartbreaking images of a relationship entering and eventually, tentatively, emerging from a “February” period. The song instantly became one of my all-time favorites, and I bought her CD “Mortal City” the very next day.

So when she came to our school on Friday to play a short concert, it was a dream come true, especially as she chose “February” as her last song of the set.  Even more importantly, though, she agreed to host a Q and A session with interested students afterward. I tipped off one of the middle school band members about the Q and A, and she said “THAT WOULD BE ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!” as she too is a Dar Williams fan, and has already written a number of songs (some of which we are eventually going to be performing). Four of the students in my French II class are in Select Chorus and, predictably, they too wanted to attend.

The questions – “How do you know if a song is good?” “How do you get from scribbling songs on index cards with broken pencils to knowing you’ve made it, to having a recording contract?” “Have you ever written anything so personal you’d never share it with anyone?” “Did you always know you were going to be a musician?” – both showed where the kids were coming from and inspired thoughtful answers. Ms. Williams’s thoughts on the last question not only brought me this blog title, but also took me back to the 90’s…to the early days of the school’s student rock band.

Lisa Bastarache, who is quoted above, was a founding member, alternating in the earliest concerts between playing guitar and singing because she wasn’t quite ready yet to do both at once. By fall of her senior year, though, she was commanding the stage, from the sass and in-your-face attitude of “not a pretty girl” by Ani DiFranco (“I am not a pretty girl. That is not what I… do. I ain’t no damsel in distress, and I don’t need to be rescued. So put me down, punk…”) to the clear, sweet longing of R.E.M.’s “Fall on Me” that contrasted with the growl of her black Strat as it intertwined with the harmony vocal of our drummer, Leah Freeman and the flute countermelody of Cassie Bohnett while Becca Engle anchored us on bass. The song still rests on my iPod, and when it comes up I generally drop what I’m doing to listen to it.

Under the watchful eye of Frog, Becca’s stuffed sheep that she willed to the group in Vespers, a generation (in middle school terms!) of bands have now taken the stage, and we’ve played witness to that mysterious alchemy time and time again. Kate Keiser’s gorgeous interpretation of “Hands” one winter, as her Christmas gift of an autographed picture of Jewel from our bassist Nicole Brennan graced the stage. Cass Panuska’s unforgettable “Zombie.” Mary Dooley’s recording of “Walking in Memphis” which was so dead-on perfect I’ve never seen a version that matches it  (though I’ll grant you this version by Marc Cohn himself is pretty awesome). Julie Stevenson’s rendition of “Don’t Know Why” that made me cry at least once each rehearsal. Michaela Sandhoff’s wistful “How’s It Going To Be?” And so many more. Cass and Mary, for sure, continue to work in, and with music, but most of the others have gone in other directions. No matter. Traces of their legacy remain forever in our music program. And similarly, each of them can draw forever on their experience in the magical world of Musician.

P.S. In one of those intriguing coincidences, “Closer to Fine” by Indigo Girls just came on the radio here at Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters – a song from that evening at the Mullins Center, and one which alumnae from the 90’s may remember from many Farewells to Seniors: “I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper and I was FREE!”

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Filed under Alumnae, On Education, Performing Arts, School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Listening through the Wall: Middle School Select Chorus Auditions and the Spirit of Our School

I can’t see the students on the other side of the wall from my office, but I can imagine the scene that I’m hearing as I listen.  The girls sit in a loosely formed circle, some perched on stools, some sliding out of a chair, others with feet firmly planted on the ground.  One student is silently shaking her head, refusing to take her turn.  Her fellow students, some who have already auditioned and others anxiously waiting for their chance, cheer her on.  They offer words of support, chant her name and talk about how their experiences weren’t so bad.  “Once you do it you’ll be glad you did!”  “It’s not that bad!” “You can do it! Really!”

This could be any class, in any subject. But I am sitting in my classroom next door, eavesdropping on one of Tony Lechner’s vocal classes.  It is Middle School Select Chorus auditions, and each girl has come prepared to share a snippet of a song with the group.  The returning eighth grade students have done this before.  I can hear familiar works by Adele and Rihanna through the wall, and can pick out some voices that I know well.  After all, some of these shortened songs I’m hearing today shocked us last year when performed in their entirety (I still brag to my non-teaching friends about witnessing Charlotte’s Spearth Day performance in May).  Now I am hearing unfamiliar voices coming through with unfamiliar songs and I assume they belong to the new seventh graders hoping to join the group.

After two more girls sing I can hear the reluctant student again being encouraged by her classmates.  She replies to her peers’ words with silence (again, I imagine the shaking of her head) and someone else begins with “Amazing Grace.”

I am not musically inclined, and even with multiple years of teaching under my belt I still have an unhealthy fear of speaking in groups.  Never would I have set foot in a vocal music classroom as a middle school student, or tried to muster the courage to sing in front of others.  I completely understand this student’s reluctance to share her song with her classmates.  She’s vulnerable. She could forget the words, her voice might waver, she might be embarrassed in front of her peers.

The end of the class period is nearing and the attention returns to the silent student.  I can hear a few classmates say something to her, but not as loudly as before.  There is a pause, and then a voice comes through.  As with the other songs I have heard over the last 40 minutes I try to recognize the student to whom it belongs, but it isn’t familiar.  Then I realize it’s her – the reluctant voice that everyone was encouraging. She’s singing!  Her voice pours through the wall, sending shivers down my spine.  I don’t know if the song is being sung well, but it sounds amazing in this moment.  I am so proud of her.  She goes quiet, the silence is suspended, and then the classroom erupts in cheers. “That was amazing!” “Wow!” “You were great!” While I can’t see her face, I imagine it beaming with a smile stretched ear to ear.

– Sara Gibbons, Senior Class Dean & Visual Arts Faculty

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Filed under In the Classroom, Performing Arts, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

The Power of Students

Like many teachers, I tend to deflect credit away from myself and toward the people who are doing the actual learning. Working with middle schoolers, especially girls, I can make a strong argument for why I should do that. Middle schoolers are seeking to define and take their place in a grown-up world and have to feel they are agents of their own destiny to do so effectively. Girls in particular (or the “girl-brained” at any rate) are more likely to give credit elsewhere, building a stronger relationship in the process but diminishing their self-concept as strong people making their mark in the world. I want to work to counteract that effect. And besides, let’s be honest, as I once told the entire school, “There is no good teaching without the power of students.”

John Norton, the founder of the MiddleWeb listserve that would eventually be absorbed by NMSA and renamed “MiddleTalk,” and also one of the key forces in Teacher Leaders Network, once posed the question whether teachers might be hurting their cause through their relentless modesty. When I say, “Oh, it’s the kids. They’re amazing. They deserve the credit,” am I leaving out an important part of the story? If so, how does that reflect on me and, more importantly, the profession of teaching? Bearing in mind the kids are amazing and do deserve a good chunk of the credit.

The Upper School Rock Band has had an especially good run these past two years. A stable core of the drummer and bassist, both of whom sing well, has been augmented by a number of other talented players. With all the strong groups we have had through the years, and all the justified compliments they have received, this is the first group that ever won the compliment, “You guys rock!” I’ve always credited the drummer and bassist for their aggressive playing and singing, and talked about how they pull everyone else along. And they do. But as I think about it, maybe there’s a little bit more to the story than that.

The turning point for the group in going from being the Rock Band to a band that rocks was arguably the Green Day song “21 Guns,” which we performed in the spring of 2010. As loud as the drummer may always have been, it seemed like she was holding back something inside of her, and one night I suggested she hit the crash cymbal at least twice a measure throughout the last verse and on all four beats heading into transitions. “Are you kidding?!” she asked me and I responded, “Nope. Give it a try and see what you think.” She did, and while she may have felt a little silly at first, she stuck with it, and over the next few rehearsals, the song took on a raucous feel, like a quintessential garage band just banging the heck out of their instruments.

So how much of this transformation was teaching and how much was learning? In one sense, who cares – the end results speak for themselves, and the power of students was unleashed.

But in another sense, it does matter. After all, we all need support from time to time, and doesn’t it help students to know their teacher has succeeded in helping other kids before them? Doesn’t it help parents to know that their children are growing steadily and that their teachers have played a part in that process? For that matter, doesn’t it help me as a teacher to concede that I have an effect on my surroundings, that it’s not just the luck of the draw if the rock band sounds good, or Humanities 7 writes beautifully, or ESL students show tremendous growth in their English?

We live in a time when, arguably, the profession of teaching has never been held in lower esteem. Even the U.S. Secretary of Education applauded when the Central Falls High School in Rhode Island laid off every single teacher. And yet, whether in enviable conditions such as Stoneleigh-Burnham teachers enjoy, or in far more challenging conditions such as may be found in schools in some of the poorest areas of the country, there is a lot of wonderful teaching going on. That fact needs to be recognized and celebrated. At our school, to that end, the Stoneleigh-Burnham Trustees created an award for teaching in 1997. This year, I was honored and privileged to be the first teacher to win it a second time.

As I was walking back after accepting the award from our Head of School, I caught the eye of our drummer standing among the Seniors, cheering and applauding and giving me a fist pump. Perhaps I had indeed helped unleash the power of this student. And if so, then others as well? My smile curved up a little more and I returned to my seat, among the middle schoolers, where I belonged.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean


Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Performing Arts, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Tribute to Performing Arts Teacher Cyndee Meese

Way way back in 1987, my second year of the school, we decided to break with tradition  and close the year with a musical revue. A teacher who was going to be rejoining us the following year after a brief leave of absence was put in charge of it, and everyone told me to expect greatness from Cyndee Meese and from the kids. She asked me to help out by choosing, arranging, and selecting and rehearsing the performers for three medleys representing women in rock in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. After sitting in on auditions, we agreed that Jen C. would be Laura Nyro, Deanie A. would be Stevie Nicks, and Sabrina P. would be Cyndi Lauper. We put together a faculty band to accompany the students and began preparing for the show. Cyndee’s impact was felt immediately in two ways. One, that the kids were indeed headed for greatness and beyond Jen’s tear-inducing cry of “Eli’s a-comin’. Woah, you better hide your heart,” Deanie’s gorgeous lilt as she sang “Shattered with words impossible to follow,” and Sabrina’s gutsy and brassy affirmation that “Girls just wanna have fun,” there were many memorable performances.  Cyndee’s second impact was more literal; as I was accompanying another song on piano, I was having trouble getting just the right sound, so she slid onto the bench to show me what she wanted, bumping me in the process so I slid right off the end onto the floor.

Cyndee’s faith in the students’ and my ability to achieve high standards and her determination that we would in fact do so would animate countless shows and performances we would do through the years. The first time we did “Little Shop of Horrors,” now my all-time favourite musical, was truly magical. Every night before rehearsal, under guise of “warming up” or “just making sure we get it right,” the lead actors would sing through “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Suddenly Seymour” with the band. True, another music teacher at another school had thrown down the gauntlet by stating flatly you could not make the show sound good with a group consisting of three keyboardists and a drummer. “Oh, we can’t, can we?” said Janey S., the band leader. Indeed on opening night, that teacher came up to us and conceded we had, in fact, pulled it off. But at heart, we just loved the songs and wanted to hear them as much as we could. What more could a musician ask for?

By then, Cyndee and I had fallen into a pattern of hanging out after rehearsals and talking into the night, a pattern that would repeat for the many years we collaborated on shows and that would deepen our friendship and our respect for each other. This pattern would also repeat as Cyndee established a tradition of Senior Recitals and I would sit in on various songs when needed. Her renting me a cherry-red Yamaha electric guitar for Gigi K.’s recital led directly to my deciding I needed one of those and getting my black Strat. That Strat, whether borrowed by generations of student guitarists beginning with Lisa B. ’99 and continuing to Nhyira A. ’16 or played by me, has been in countless shows itself.

We were fortunate, when founding the middle school, that Cyndee knew, loved, and understood young adolescents, and she got the vocal music program off to a strong start, single-handedly building it to eventually include not just the general class for all middle schoolers but also a Select Chorus that was, and is, the equal of many high school groups. When she took over the middle school theatre program, she also took the risk with me of allowing the seventh graders to write and produce original plays every year; this has become a tradition and cornerstone of our program. Teaming up with Ann Sorvino (dance), Greg Snedeker (instrumental music), Kim Mancuso (theatre), and earlier David Killam (instrumental music), we pulled off a series of middle school productions that were jaw-droppingly good. Literally so, judging by Hank Mixsell’s reaction to the first show he ever heard.

Stoneleigh-Burnham is all about voice and all about strong women; both as a role model and through her work with the kids, Cyndee has exemplified our mission. I feel privileged to have been able to work with her, especially because it was so much fun it didn’t even feel like work. So thank you, Cyndee, and my very best wishes to you.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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