Tag Archives: Rock Band

Quite a Way to Go

“That Rock Band,” a parent said, shaking his head. Clearly searching for words, he added, “Wow.” It was not an uncommon reaction, and when I emailed my usual post-concert congratulations to the group, I told them about the moment and noted, “Yes, you performed that well; you literally left people speechless.” It’s true, from the first notes pounded out on the piano as they slammed through “Yoü and I” by Lady Gaga, through the last, sweet harmonies held over a cymbal roll and an echoing piano chord as they ended “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars et al, they were amazing, all of them: Bonnie, Charlotte, Heather, Jin, Joy, Joyce, McKim, Molly, Natalie, Olivia, and Susan. And when I pointed out that the vocalists wrote all the harmonies themselves, the speechless factor among audience members rose even higher.

This is just our first performance, just a few weeks into the year. While six members of last year’s group returned and one moved up from the middle school band, four were brand new, and one of those was a complete beginner to her instrument. Yet, they came together so thoroughly and so rapidly that we chose and began working on our next two songs even before the first performance, something we have only rarely been able to do in the past.

As I looked back on the performance with pride, my mind jumped to an evening at the beginning of this past summer. I was at a coffee house in Amherst, and two baristas were working the counter. While one of them was preparing my drink, he commented to the other, “I don’t like it when chicks cover songs.” So many responses sprang to my mind, of which one of the more polite was, “Even songs written by, umm, women?” but I was technically not involved in the conversation and stayed quiet. The other barista was clearly taken aback; after a moment, she said what seemed to be the only thing she could think of in response: “Really? Why?” He paused, far longer than anyone who had just made such a flat declaration had any right to, and came up with, “There’s just something wrong about it.”

Well. There it is, then. That clears that up! The other barista paused a while and went back to wiping down the countertop.

Earlier today, a friend shared on Facebook a link to a video of Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart performing “Stairway to Heaven” at a concert honoring the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. In her posting, she noted that the performance was so good it made Robert Plant cry, and indeed part of what makes the video so moving, beyond the incredible performance itself, is the interspersing of shots of the group members’ reactions to the song with shots of the performers themselves.

I don’t know what that one barista would think of this performance, if he came across it – whether it would simply confuse him and he would think Robert Plant a wimp, or whether it might actually penetrate his male privilege-addled brain deeply enough to make him rethink some of his beliefs. One hopes for the second, of course, but he had quite a way to go.

Family Weekend at our school is in many ways about elevating and honoring girls’ voices as we share what we get to see every day with families who get to see the effects of what we do every day. While the Rock Band performances exemplify what the school is all about, in no way are they the only example. Far from it, in fact – which is part of what makes our school so special.

Which makes it all the more sad that there are still people so deaf to women’s voices that they are literally missing half of what the world has to offer, and have no clue. And so, as we support these girls in bringing their voices to the world, we also work to support the world in shutting up long enough to open their ears and truly listen.

Because sometimes, speechlessness is good.

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Filed under Gender, Performing Arts, 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.

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Filed under Performing Arts, School Happenings, 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