Tag Archives: performing

Torn Apart

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Usually, at the end of a show, especially on Opening Night, the cast either cheers and wanders off stage after the bows or simply wanders off stage. But as Meg Reilly, the music director, and Josh Carnes, the drummer, went into the exit music, these kids clearly did not want to leave, and it only took a few moments for the first one to turn to the girl standing next to her and wrap her in a long, warm hug which spread like, well, AIDS in the early 1990s, to choose a show-appropriate metaphor. Only, of course, on a much, much more positive note.

Before the show, Kim Mancuso, the stage director of the play, had gathered us all together on stage for an Opening Night ritual that marked and acknowledged the importance of each and every possible relationship among us in pulling off this incredibly complex and powerful show. When Tom Geha, the lighting technician, and I returned to the tech table, he said, “You know, you probably don’t even think about it because you see them every day, but I was looking around and it really hits you how young they are.” Rent is an ambitious show for people of any age, but it is an exceptional challenge for teenagers and pre-teens (three cast members were seventh graders) to immerse themselves for three months in the world of New York City’s East Village in the early 1990s, when many of the starving young artists were HIV-positive and/or had come down with full-blown AIDS. In that context, it was perhaps even more of a challenge for these kids to put themselves out there on stage for all to see.

Yet, every single audience member I talked to said the same thing, that part of what made this show exceptional was the absolutely universal commitment to the show and to each other that was clear from the first entrance to the last onstage hug before they finally wandered off stage.

The other part of what made this show exceptional is the show itself. The script is raw and intense, fueled by the tension that comes from the uncertainty of not knowing which one of your friends might be the next to die, of trying to find happiness and live day by day as best we can. With the funeral of one of the most beloved of the main characters as the centerpiece of the second act, and the subsequent destruction or near-destruction of a number of the relationships, the second act is harrowing. I turned to Tom after the Saturday night performance, and commented, “That second act just destroys me every time, and more and more each time I see it.” I could see in his eyes even before he answered that he felt the same way.

Near the end of the show, the character Tom Collins sings, “I can’t believe you’re going / I can’t believe this family must die / Angel helped us believe in love / I can’t believe you disagree.” One of my seventh grade Humanities students wrote an independent writing piece after the final show that essentially echoed this sentiment. I wrote her in response, “This is beautiful – raw and honest and in the moment. It’s not polished, and quite honestly it probably shouldn’t be. / I will share this with you in reaction, something I sent out on Twitter a few hours after the show: ‘Hard to mix the 2nd act of #Rent with tears flooding my eyes but I did my best. @sbschoolorg kids did an awesome job with a powerful show.’ I think this one will stick with many, perhaps most, of us for a lifetime.”

“Rent,” of course, not only refers to the money the characters in this musical state in the title song that they are not going to pay – not last year’s, not this year’s, not next year’s. “Rent” also refers to the concept of being, literally, torn apart. In this case, fortunately, though perhaps emotionally shredded, the cast and crew of this musical were not torn apart.

This family, at least, will never die.

Leave a comment

Filed under Performing Arts, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Not Long Enough

Spearth Day was born of a series of compromises, but has become one of the key dates in the waning weeks of our school year. Many years ago, the students asked for a special day to celebrate the mailman who played such an important role in their lives (today’s students, for whom email is old-fashioned and texting is routine, would probably find this odd). We called it “M and M Day” for “Mail Man Day,” and besides presenting him with a card and gifts when he finally showed, we played an all-school game of Capture the Flag and found other ways to celebrate. Over time, M and M Day evolved and became more organized – for one thing, the tradition of the talent show was begun. Meanwhile, earlier in the spring, Earth Day remained a day off for service – cleaning up local parks and rivers, clearing trails, and so on. The two days were eventually combined into one, and the name “Spearth Day” comes from “Spring-Earth Day.” We spend the morning doing various service projects on- and off-campus, have the Talent Show after lunch, follow that with games and booths organized by classes and clubs, dedicate the yearbook and pass out copies, and end with a barbecue. This year, for a special treat, there will be a dance performance by the Senior IB dancers.

Excitement always run high right before Spearth Day, especially when Wednesday immediately precedes it as that is our half-day of classes. The 7th graders spent Morning Meeting somewhat nervously tying up the few remaining loose ends in the preparation for their booth while the 8th graders set up a coverage schedule and worked hard to ensure they would have everything they needed. Early morning notes on the white board suggested the Community Service Club had done much the same the night before.

Sports are winding down (another reason for excitement as this is a major marker the year is actually starting to come to a close), and so Sophie and Clara, two of the 7th graders, were available and eager to accompany me to the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society. They laughed and sang and talked all the way there, assuring me they had to be the loudest group I’d ever taken (they weren’t far wrong, actually!). There wasn’t much to do on site, but they were cheerful and positive even when just folding laundry, and took the time to make friends with some of the cats. The ride back was just about as high energy as the ride out.

When we returned at 5:30, the school was sheltering in the basement as a tornado warning had been issued. So when the Wednesday night group of the Middle School Rock Bands showed up 20-25 minutes late for rehearsal (dinner had opened half an hour late and hey, they had to eat!), energy was even higher than usual – if possible! – for a Spearth Day Eve.

For the Spearth Day Talent Show, the group is performing “Microphone” by Martha, a second-year 8th grader. The song has rather whimsical lyrics (sample “Microphone, / You have a big head. / You have a cord. / And it is long.”) and a melody to match. At our first rehearsal of the song, I suggested a series of chords to which everyone agreed, and Aliana (who had played drums before during this year) taught Subin (who hadn’t) an appropriately whimsical drum part (Meredith on bass, Molly sharing vocals with Martha, and Ellie on marimba round out the group; Aliana is covering the piano part). The song is a little bit short, so at our previous rehearsal, we had rearranged it so the final chorus was repeated three times – once with instruments, once a cappella, and once more with instruments.

We ran the song twice – the second time because I had forgotten to time it, just to be on the safe side as we are limited to three minutes (lots of acts in this Talent Show!) before sailing into “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane, which we are doing next Thursday for the annual Middle School Music Performance. It is a beautiful piece with subtly shifting block chords in the piano anchored by a relatively straightforward backbeat. Subin was drumming again, Martha had shifted to the marimba, and though I normally play bass on this piece, I had to cover Molly’s piano part since her team was late back from a game. Somehow, Ellie, Aliana, and Martha had contrived to cover Meredith’s vocal since her Team Night had begun way late due to the tornado warning and so was going way late. Still, even with me faking the chord shifts that Molly alone knew by heart, and even with one less voice on the harmonies (which the girls themselves wrote), the song sounded gorgeous and as it sunk in that I had only two more nights with this group before they were done for the year, tears sprang to my eyes which I tried (successfully) to cover up because the girls were having so much fun.

In the 1991 remake of “Father of the Bride,” Steve Martin in the title role tells his daughter on the night before her wedding, “Well, that’s the thing about life, is the surprises, the little things that sneak up on you and grab hold of you.” (IMDb) I know tonight is only the first of many such moments we’ll experience over the next two and a half weeks. It’s a way to mark how much these kids come to mean to us, and to each other. Of course, even those who are graduating and moving on will live on in my memory and in my heart. And they will have good company there, kids both past and future.

And meanwhile, I will savor every moment of the rest of the year. I know how lucky I am. And I am determined not to take it for granted. As, I am quite sure, are they.

Leave a comment

Filed under Graduation, In the Classroom, On Education, On Parenting, Performing Arts, School Happenings, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Songs in the Key of Life

(title taken from the title of Stevie Wonder‘s masterwork album, released in 1976)

There’s a new maturity in the Rock Bands, and I’m not the only one to have noticed. This year, we are performing more than we have in ages, and the pressure of nonstop shows seems to be helping us trust each other to work to get our parts right, listen closely and work together in rehearsal, and use the adrenaline that comes with performing to bring out our best. Preparing for this most recent concert was especially challenging as a number of group members were also involved in the winter play and so had to miss two weeks of rehearsals shortly before our own performance. But that circumstance has given me several moments I’ll remember through the end of my career and beyond.

Charlotte, on her first rehearsal of the Beatles song “Hold Me Tight” less than two weeks before the performance, relaxing into the song and dancing along. Mailande, a few days later joining that same group, leaning in to the bridge and focusing on getting every single note precisely in tune. Ellie, finding out she was not only playing piano on “You Give Love a Bad Name” but also had a solo, quietly digging in, sight-reading what she could, learning the flow of the song when she got to the parts she would have to practice, calling me over as needed to talk her through the part so she could learn it for our next rehearsal. And Kate, again with “Hold Me Tight,” taking on possibly the hardest bass part anyone has attempted in the 16 years I’ve been teaching the group, insisting not on perfection every single time but perfection at least once before the performance, smiling on her way out of rehearsal one night as I said, “Awesome job, Kate. It sounds gorgeous.” And these are just four examples. Every single person in the groups had at least one moment that made me think, “I am so lucky to work with these kids.”

During the performance, with all four groups, there was no hesitation in taking the stage, no last minute nervous questions before we got set. They sailed through the songs with confidence, and left the stage not with the half-stunned feeling of “Hey, we did it!” of earlier performances but rather with a sense of quiet accomplishment. The audience noticed, too. Along with the usual warm thanks and congratulations, one of the parents came up to me and observed, “They’re really coming together.”

Music, and the arts in general, bring so much to kids’ lives. Yet music is disappearing from public schools, forced out by the focus on testing, on meeting rigorous standards, on (if you’re a teacher) keeping your job and on (if you have any job in K-12 education) keeping your school open in the first place. This makes it all the more mystifying when a famous musician lends his name to the corporatist reform movement. In his piece “John Legend and the Well-Meaning Corporatists,” José Vilson writes, “Sadly, John’s legend in education will show a man who supports kids using pencils to bubble in scan-ready sheets rather than notes for the keys to their own lives.” (Vilson)

“Notes for the keys to their own lives.” That’s exactly what I want for all my students. It’s what all good teachers want for all their students. So, while I am appreciative of my good fortune in being able to teach music in my own special world, I feel I owe it to the larger world of education to advocate for the arts. The benefits of the arts should be clear. Even research – which would technically be included in the mass of data with which so many corporatist reformers are in love – shows those benefits. These kids are developing and using their voices. So must I. So must we all.

Leave a comment

Filed under Performing Arts, School Happenings, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

The Art of Silence

On the day our school was observing the Day of Silence in support of LBGT people, I happened to be away at a conference. I had thought of the perfect lesson plan for Humanities – the kids would listen to 4’33” by John Cage. For those who may not know it, this is the composition wherein the performer makes absolutely no sound with her or his instrument. Silence, as it were – only not exactly, because listeners still experience whatever sounds may happen to exist in the performance space. The name comes from the total length of the piece.

I found a Death Metal performance of the piece that I really wanted to use, especially because of the humorous introduction the drummer gave, but unfortunately he took it a little fast and the piece only took 2’40”. So I settled on a ukulele performance. Tod (our IT person) had agreed to cover the class, so I emailed him and the kids the link, and asked each student to email me a poem in reaction once the piece had concluded.

The final general session of the conference (which was, overall, excellent) was on Workman’s Comp and oriented only to Business Managers, so I skipped out, found a couch, and checked in with my students. Most of their poems echoed this theme:

4 minutes.
37 seconds.
All wasted.
No movement.
No sound
What is the point? (…)

One student was definitely on to something:

(…) But this might be more than lack of music
It might be silence
You do not see his face
You do not hear him play
You do not know why it was like that
You might not even care
But to him it could have meant something to him (…)

And these students caused me to gasp out loud:

he plays
his favorite melody
his fingers know
every inch of the string and the songs
after years of practice
he is a master
and brave enough to show it
to the world
we listen
but we hear nothing
there is no sweet tune that fills our ears
so we shrug
“oh well, it isn’t important”
but to him,
to the ukulele man,
it is the most important thing
and he hears the music

The power of silence
More than just any noise
Blanketing everything until it sounds like a
crisp sheet of paper
Never written on
Never erased
Only on the perfect moments
Peeking from behind the banging and clanging
of whatever is called music
Strong, hard

I suspect there is enough there that, had I been present to help facilitate a discussion (and had it not been the Day of Silence!), they would have come to some really interesting conclusions in putting their ideas together and building on them. However, given that I couldn’t be there, the next best thing was to email them as soon as possible. I told them that if they were curious, they should look up the composer John Cage. I noted that 4’33” is actually one of Cage’s most famous compositions, and let them know that he once did a workshop at Middlebury with music majors during my sophomore year and the next day I would tell them all about it and what I learned. And I wrote a poem back to them:

Lost Opportunity. Or not.
Sound surrounds us
And there is music around us always
You listen
Focus on one voice
And you miss the chorus.
Silence is not for everyone
For some
Silence never is.

Leave a comment

Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

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!”

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

Filed under In the Classroom, Performing Arts, 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

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumnae, In the Classroom, Performing Arts