December was filled with the sounds of student performances. For many children at ETM's new partner schools, this was their first ever opportunity to perform in front of an audience. For others, the concerts have become something to which they look forward each year. ETM asked three teaching artists to share their experiences in preparing and producing the winter concerts.
Racquel Borromeo, PS 121, Bronx:
PS 121 had a very successful winter concert on December 16th! Grades K-2 joyfully sang and played instruments to songs such as My Two Front Teeth, Deck the Halls, Christmas Cookies, and Christmas Chopsticks with a grand finale of Canon (based on Canon in D) that was accompanied perfectly by the special ed classes of 3rd and 5th grades. Grades 3-5 had a very uplifting program. The 3rd graders began learning recorder this year, so they played a rock arrangement of Joy of Man's Desiring and a hip-hop arrangement to God Rest You Merry Gentlemen. The 4th and 5th graders are just natural instrumentalists! They sang Imagine, Lean on Me, Wake Up Everybody, Carol of the Bells, and A Wonderful Christmastime. But the best part about it is that they accompanied themselves!
Just like the parents and the faculty members of PS 121, they were amazed that they did it all by themselves! Through focusing in a 45-minute class, they were able to accomplish all that in 3-4 classes. Once the concert was over, many parents and faculty were fascinated by the talent they saw. In fact, more parents are asking about middle schools where their children can continue to study music!
Dan Blankinship, PS 155, Manhattan:
When planning the repertoire for this year's winter concert for the 3rd, 4th and 5th grades, I wanted to expand beyond the typical repertoire while remaining appropriate to the spirit of the season. With the ground-breaking election of Barack Obama on everyone's minds, I decided to include a few politically-oriented songs and titled our presentation Winter Concert: A Season of Change. As we had done a unit on rock ‘n' roll in the fall, I included two Beatles songs (All You Need Is Love and Revolution) and one Bob Dylan song (The Times They Are A-Changin'). And so as not to miss out on the holiday spirit, we threw in Blue Christmas, as performed by Elvis Presley, and the hip-hop classic Christmas in Hollis by Run-DMC.
The concert went over splendidly with both the kids performing and the audience of parents and teachers. I incorporated more instruments into this concert than ever before, including handbells on All You Need Is Love and lots of Orff instruments and recorders in the other songs. I was really happy with how the teachers encouraged their students to dress up for the show: the classes doing the Dylan song tie-dyed shirts especially for the occasion, and the classes doing the Run-DMC made up some very cool gold glitter necklaces, a little homemade bling if you will. They rapped their hearts out and brought the house down as the concert closers.
Ulises Solano, St. Athanasius School, Bronx:
I started thinking about the 2008 Christmas program a year ago. Ms. Kraft, our principal, hoped to have a program around the theme of generosity, and we kept coming back to the idea of performing Amahl and the Night Visitors. She told me how much she had loved this story and how well it would fulfill the theme. I had some doubts, as the opera presented many challenges for a cast composed of children from 6th through 8th grade with little or no opera exposure.
Knowing these obstacles, I began introducing the opera to every class in January 2008, by way of the original 1951 telecast, with subtitles. The purpose was to get a feel about how the opera would be received. The lesson plan included worksheets to quiz the kids on what they had learned from the viewing and how it made them feel. To my surprise, many kids loved it, and it was especially the "then 5th-graders" who were the most enthusiastic about it. Several boys began asking me if they could play King Kaspar. The children's comments and reminders during the Spring semester convinced me we should try this, no matter how daunting it seemed.
Because boy's voices can change unpredictably in 6th and 7th grades, I cast three Amahl's. The most difficult consideration was casting the Kings; we needed to give the girls a chance to participate. I ended up having two casts with both boys and girls playing the Kings. Casting was not all based on talent; I also considered what these children needed in their lives to give them a lift up. Musically, the most difficult role is the mother. Thankfully, the school librarian, Gisella Scheera, is a trained singer. She not only did an awesome job, but was my right hand in preparing the show.
The 6th graders were my opera chorus. Making those young girls believe they could hit high G's and A's and sustain them was in itself a feat. Gradually, I saw them begin to get confidence, even become daring. They didn't know how hard what they were doing was supposed to be. They started looking forward to rehearsals and bragging about their newfound vocal skills. Working with the boys was a different challenge, because of their social concerns. One parent actually stormed into the music room declaring that opera wasn't manly and was completely unnecessary to her son's education. For a minute, I thought I was living a scene from a movie. This boy wound up being a very promising bass baritone who sang with much authority.
The school was blessed with a donation of Orff instruments this year from a church on Long Island, so I was able to arrange large Orff ensembles and choruses for grades 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8, and involve more children in the concert.
Many uncounted hours went into coaching and preparation. The librarian worked with the Amahl's while they helped her put books back on shelves. There was singing going on in the school whether I was there or not. I had to choose my battles, and I chose music, so there was very little time for staging and choreography. Still, the kids were enthusiastic about learning a few theatrical conventions to bring stage blocking to life. The costumes came from many different sources: the church, the school nuns, and the students' parents — using typical Latin American folk motifs. For the props, we bought some things, but others were donated by the local pawnshop and antique shops. My wife played the piano. It was truly a community effort.
The kids have been greatly moticated by what they were able to accomplish. The response has been quite overwhelming. Parents have called the school and talked about how much they enjoyed the concert and the impact it had on them. They were impressed their kids could do an opera. Some parents said they always dreamed to see a live opera, but never had a chance or the money to afford it; Amahl gave them that chance.
For me the biggest satisfaction was how much the kids have learned to appreciate and love classical music since I began working at the school. In January, I taught the 5th grade a Bach piece on recorder. Instead of the anticipated skepticism, I heard comments like, "Wow, this is so beautiful," and, "This is cool."
To see concert photos from a variety of partner schools, click here.