Music, the Great Equalizer – Inspiring students
For Alla Zernitskaya, class begins five mornings each week at 6:30 sharp. “That’s the only way to accommodate students’ schedules,” says Zernitskaya, who is in her 26th year at the helm of the orchestral music program at Pittsfield High School and Herberg Middle School. The program—which includes 28 students in the high school orchestra, 29 in the middle school orchestra, and a very sophisticated series of string quartets—translates into a daily dose of training for students. “The program is very visible,” says Zernitskaya who, come May, will have orchestrated concerts at venues ranging from the Berkshire Athenaeum to Kimball Farms. The year’s final performance, May 16 at the acoustically friendly and vibrant Zion Lutheran Church, is testament to her passion for her profession.
“You have to love what you are doing,” says Zernitskaya in a thick accent. “While not everyone becomes a musician, the exposure definitely opens them up.”
Zernitskaya, who hails from Minsk, is a violinist by training. She earned her master’s degree in performance and education in her native Belarus and completed her student teaching at the University of Massachusetts. Her worldly take on music has led to high-brow exposure for her students, ranging from visits to Boston’s Symphony Hall and New York’s Lincoln Center.
The etymology of the word orchestra comes from the Greek orkhestra, meaning “to dance” —and dance they do. Zernitskaya is among the county’s unique band of music directors whose lifelong dance with music is a conduit for their students to step outside of their comfort zones and to gain confidence, all in preparation for the world’s stage.
In Great Barrington, Michael Gillespie stands before the full Monument Mountain Regional High School band, a slender white conductor’s baton poised in midair. “This, right here, is the craziest two weeks of the year,” he announces over the tinkling of piano keys, the ascending scales from a lone saxophone, and the slapping of drum brushes on cymbals. Deep in the throes of a concert cycle, Gillespie is finalizing set lists and perfecting his musicians’ timing. “Brass, here we go,” he says as the sweet sound of scales swells, ascending and then descending. “Keep listening,” he interjects, “we’re getting close, but we’re not there yet,” he adds before requesting another B-flat. “Your ears should never shut off.”
He keeps on the 52 students fanned out before him in standard orchestral arrangement as errant notes float through the air. “This might be a different era of music, but it’s the same skill,” he declares as the brass, woodwinds and percussion join to commence Bach’s Chorale No. 19. Gillespie is afforded a scant 45 minutes each day to teach his students and prepare them to perform. He is unwavering. “Six measures from the end, it looks like a place to breathe but it’s not,” he points out to the brass section. Amidst the rustle of sheet music, they try again.
Gillespie speaks of the rewards and challenges that his jobs entails: conducting six bands in the middle and high schools, holding small group lessons, sectionals, guiding the improvised jazz solos, selecting music, arranging concerts on campus and off, and more. This only highlights his love of working with students who range from beginners to advanced. “There is never enough time in any given week!” exclaims Gillespie, a sentiment shared by Courtney English of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District in Sheffield.
“At some point, you have to say no,” admits English who has been the elementary, middle and high school band director since 2008. The Golden Eagle Band is known to dazzle spectators at the Lee Founder’s Day Parade by adding dance steps to their musical arrangements. Requests for their participation—from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Holyoke to the Fall Foliage Parade in North Adams—have reached an all-time high. The band meets just every other day, sharing the block with chorus.
“Try as you may to plan things out, it can feel very chaotic,” she explains of a trio of upcoming appearances in local Memorial Day parades. Still, she keeps focused on the task at hand: exposing her 200 students to an experience they might not otherwise choose and watching it bolster their confidence in the process. The students enjoy the creativity and sense of community and belonging found in her classroom. “This is where they come—even during lunch. They feel safe,” she says. For younger students often afraid to speak in class, simply showing up for band means participation. For those who struggle with reading but find reading music a breeze, band class can provide a priceless boost in morale. “It’s just a high,” English admits.
The real work lies in helping students to cultivate their own voice while being in concert with others. Sunhwa Reiner has a special perspective on this task. In her third year as general music/choral director at Monument Valley Regional Middle School, she has introduced a pop-based curriculum to meet students where they are.
“I really want kids who are not hooked by our ensembles to be hooked by a contemporary approach, one that does not rely on prior knowledge,” Reiner explains. Her general music classes revolve around creating, improvising and composing together. “Creating music together, regardless of prior experience, gets to the collaborative piece, the community piece, the social emotional piece—something these kids don’t get so much of in their academic day.”