britten & bizarro

I have this most amazing selfie to date to commemorate the Chamber Orchestra’s laudable performance at Music in the Parks and their subsequent trip to Six Flags New England yesterday:


Our bus pulled out of the Brewster High School parking lot just after 7am Friday morning and headed to Westfield South Middle School in Westfield, Massachusetts. The festival seemed surprisingly understaffed when we arrived just before our 9:40am warm-up time. Students were there to direct us to the band room (with no chairs, no stands), but the front office staff seemed completely unaware of the existence of students from other schools coming and going all day.

The warm-up part was tough. Though my students were anxious to play, they were also struggling to wake themselves up out of the sleepiness from the morning bus ride. This was also the first time any of them had participated in a Music in the Parks-type of festival, and they weren’t quite sure about how to process the new situation. We played some of our most difficult spots, including a few transitions, and then I gave them time to warm up individually or with partners.

Our repertoire for this event was the entire Simple Symphony by Benjamin Britten. Composed of melodies written by Britten between the ages of 9 and 12, this piece can be very misleading in its complexity. The New York State School Music Association places Simple Symphony in its highest – Level 6 – category, presumably because of the extended pitch range, variety of tempos and time signatures, and the extent of compositional interplay between sections. It is a piece that even professionals have to study before rehearsal, and it requires very focused attention throughout.

Suffice to say, as much as I value and enjoy this work, it was not my first choice for the Chamber Orchestra. The students of the Chamber Orchestra have performed Level 5 programs in the Spring for the past two years, and their hard work has earned them Gold with Distinction ratings at the NYSSMA Majors Organizations Festival. Given that most of the students in this ensemble do not attend NYSSMA Solo Festival and that the average NYSSMA Solo Festival level of the group as a whole would hover around a Level 4, Level 5 orchestra selections have always been challenging. However, I felt quite a bit of pressure from my colleagues to use the multiple Gold ratings to justify moving to the next — and highest — level. The decision to play the Britten came from careful consideration of the Level 6 repertoire list and an understanding that certain movements would be doable at slower tempos. I also made my repertoire choice knowing that I would not subject my students to NYSSMA festival adjudication where they would be critiqued in predictable, and uninspiring, ways. As I scrounged around for parts and scores — which were harder to come by than I expected given that 2013 was an anniversary year for Britten — I registered the Chamber Orchestra for Music in the Parks: a reward for their hard(er than ever) work.

The judges at Westfield South Middle School consisted of a choral director and a jazz band teacher. Britten didn’t stand a chance to impress. Brewster performed with a lot of energy and emotion, better-than-normal attention across sections, but slightly poorer intonation than I had hoped. In just over 15 minutes, we were finished and loading back onto the buses.

Why the route to Six Flags New England from Westfield South Middle School was so complicated, I don’t understand. There were more than a few road closures, and our Google GPS wasn’t updating accurately. The important thing is that we pulled into the parking lot around 10:45am and had to hurry up to wait in line to enter.

I was most concerned about this portion of the trip. In an effort to keep as much money in the hands of students and the Brewster HS Music Boosters, I had opted to take just one other chaperone: Patty, my first year mentor and friend in the BHS Choral Department. Although the tshirt purchases had been largely based on identity and team-building within the string program, the students’ choice of hot pink was a godsend. They were easy to spot throughout the day and eliminated any difficult discussions about inappropriate attire that I found myself wishing other teachers had had with their students before heading out into public.

Students in Brewster have many opportunities to go on field trips. Some had already been to Six Flags with their Physics classes, others had traveled to Washington, D.C. in middle school, and most were expecting to be given completely free reign of the park while we were there. The problem with this is that I am still a relatively new teacher, and I worry more than perhaps I should. To strike a balance between overbearing and naively lenient, I set up a system ahead of time involving buddies and cell phones:

  • Prior to departure, students signed up to stick with one or two other people throughout the day. Students who don’t have close friends in Chamber Orchestra were assigned buddies loosely based on preferences (rollercoasters, water rides, games, etc).
  • Each student received a paper on the bus with the “official” buddy list, my cell phone number, and a few times throughout the day. While on the bus, each student texted my phone with their name and received a confirmation text back from me with the same times as listed on the handout.
  • Students were expected to text me at each of the designated times with information including: their name, who they were with (their buddy and any others), and where in the park they were (waiting on line for ride x, eating at x restaurant, etc). If they didn’t receive a confirmation “thanks” from me, it didn’t count as being sent and they could expect to hear their names announced by security to meet me at a certain location.

I never had to make any such announcement! The system worked beautifully, all students texted at the designated times, they showed up when they were supposed to, and the day went really smoothly.

And most importantly, according to students who recounted this in shock to others on the bus ride home, Patty and I were able to ride both Flashback and Bizarro 2x.  If that isn’t a successful trip, I don’t know what is!



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