The Tannery Sessions – Andy Wrba guides recording sessions at the Darrow School
Among its notable alumni, the Darrow School in New Lebanon, New York, boasts actor Christopher Lloyd and third astronaut to walk on the moon Charles “Pete” Conrad. Maybe the future promises a musician added to these ranks, thanks to the Tannery Sessions, a new program placing music students in a professional studio setting for a series of YouTube videos.
Darrow music director and Berkshire bassist Andy Wrba makes his program diverse, with concert offerings from jazz to Dvorak to the Beatles to Maggie Rogers. In starting the Tannery Sessions, he’s helped students raise their level of performance. “I’ve always had a desire to document things more in the video sense,” says Wrba. “I thought that the best way to do that would be to have some in-studio or produced video projects.”
Taking cues from series like NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, Wrba chose The Tannery, a renovated barn built by Shakers in 1834, as the location for the sessions he envisioned. Approaching students and other faculty members, Wrba found plenty of interest in the program.
Placing polished video production within a working music studio, the sessions featured performances by Wrba’s students, himself, and other faculty members, with a technical crew comprised of students. It was an opportunity to ”get our hands dirty,” as Wrba describes it. One early session featured ninth-grade harpist Neshima Vitale-Penniman playing Debussy’s “Arabesque,” while art teacher Dennis Fougere created a painting alongside her. Another paired four vocalists with a four-piece band to perform Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You.”
“The students are unbelievably creative and get so excited about all these projects, which I’m grateful for because they’re so fun to be around,” Wrba says. “If I had the original image and the original vision for the project, they certainly came in with their own ideas and thoughts about it, which always elevated the process because there’s just some things that I’m not thinking about.”
Senior Julia Ordu’s passion is singing, which she hopes to pursue in college. For her, a standout moment was as part of a vocal trio performing Melissa Polinar’s “See The Stars,” and the lessons it provided.
“When I sing a song at a concert, I have practiced it a hundred times before that concert, but in private,” she says. “With the sessions, we had to sing each song a lot, but we were being videotaped, and each time we had to sing the song better than the try before.”
Tenth-grader Taylor Caraballo agrees and credits the Tannery Sessions for offering her a different perspective on making music.
“There is something about singing when it is being recorded that changes a lot,” she says. “I liked being able to experiment with different ways of singing during the recordings, and it encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and make singing more of my own.”
Carabello, a singer hoping to pursue that and acting in musicals, says that the highlight for her was working with Berkshire musician Tory Hanna, best known as a member of The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow. The students tackled a song from Hanna’s first solo album, “Riverside,” and Hanna was impressed by their work.
“I know the students had listened to that version many times during their rehearsals, but the input and orchestration that they brought to the Tannery Sessions was really something,” Hanna says. “I really felt that the students brought a level of professionalism. They took it extremely seriously, and while they had rehearsed on their own as a group, they had not sat down with me prior to us starting our live tracking. I was particularly impressed by the level of musicianship they all brought.”
Hanna’s session for the students is a visible example of the other part of Wrba’s life and what he brings to the classroom. A Pittsfield native, Wrba founded the Berkshire Jazz Collective and has helmed the Monday night jazz residency at Mission for over eight years. Entering his sixth year at Darrow, Wrba is a member of Barefoot Truth and a featured performer in The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow.
“One feeds the other in terms of the professional performing musician and the teacher,” says Wrba. “I’m taking all these new things that I’m playing and learning from my colleagues out in the world and I’m bringing some of the music and lessons to school. And some of the approaches that I have as a teacher and inspiration that I get from my students certainly go out to the world.”
Hanna believes that Wrba’s life as a working musician gives the students involved in the Tannery Sessions something unique that many music programs don’t offer.
“If music is something they’d like to pursue professionally in their futures or even something they like to grow within themselves, it’s all about collaboration, going outside of your comfort zone, and learning from others,” Hanna says.
And to Wrba, the program’s success shows in the students’ growth. He points to the final video of last semester, “See You Again,” as a prime example of their growth, which saw students steering the musical arrangement of the song.
“I was certainly there guiding and helping along as much as I could,” says Wrba, “but that’s an example of our students being rock stars.”