August 9, 2020

THIS is Why Schools Exist

There are a lot of discussions underway about what school will or should look like when face-to-face sessions resume. Sadly, the images of teachers barking commands from meters away at children in cells bolted to the floor six feet apart are as pedagogically toxic as they are medically perilous.

Ann Wang/Reuters – Lovingly borrowed from https://nationalpost.com/opinion/post-covid-19-classrooms-what-if-keeping-your-distance-becomes-the-new-school-normal

It is amazing how school leaders and districts can always seem to find rainy day money to invest in terrible ideas without a second wasted on considering the consequences of such actions. I realize that you are in a hurry to reopen schools, but are you investing for the future or reacting out of panic?

I remember several years back when virtual reality was being hyped by educator members of the Shiny Object Club flitting from one new scheme to another. Folks desperate to justify whatever they thought VR is would ask, “What do you think about virtual reality in schools?” My answer would always be, “Isn’t that redundant?

Surprisingly to some, the online world may provide greater opportunities for intimacy, collaboration, conversation, and learning-by-doing. It is the mechanical stuff long overvalued by school – reading quietly, answering questions, worksheets, quizzes, tests, studying – that are much better suited for the virtual world.

You know who I rarely, if ever, see featured in the articles, books, podcasts, pronouncements, panel discussions or prognostications of the futurists “helping” schools prepare for the “new normal?” Music, art, or drama teachers. Why must the future be so colorless and dystopian?

The simple truth is that band was the only thing we did not have at home that justified my kids going to school. Schools tend to undervalue the things to which they actually add value.

When pressed to defend investment in art, music, drama programs (a justification only ever sought after for things kids enjoy), the affirmative arguments often evoke the words of Dickensian shopkeepers. Students in art and music classes do better on standardized tests or get into better colleges or crush the lesser kids. Even those with nobler objectives argue that art, music, and drama programs motivate kids to stay in school and give them purpose. While certainly true, those reasons are also in service of the system. How about investing in performing arts programs with qualified teachers within the curricular day because what students experience in those classes are the things that make us human, nurture democracy, and sustain civilization? To quote the late NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath, “What was good, is good.”

This is not small stakes. I write this as fiery protests burn in cities across the United States in the wake of the latest racist police officer killing of an African American. It is a safe bet that kids in the high school jazz band or production of “Fiddler on the Roof” are not out looting a shoe store. They may even vote to support school budgets when they become adults.

Today’s feed

I have been battling for public investments in performing arts education for thirty-eight years (a tale for another article), but today I saw something so deeply moving on Facebook, that its importance motivated this article.

One of the world’s finest vocalists, Kurt Elling, shared a video of a high school choir from Boulder, Colorado performing an adapted version of his arrangement of Paul Simon’s American Tune. Despite their social isolation, a work of high-quality art was produced on iPhones by students who learned to sing together in school. The special poignancy of the performance is heightened by today’s milieu. Even if these young people did not learn to sing in school, this is where they learned to sing songs by Paul Simon like Kurt Elling and to be part of something bigger than themselves. It also happens to sound great.

Excalibur (2019-20) Fairview High School Boulder, CO Janice Vlachos, director

A cursory Google search revealed that Fairview High School does not just have a choir, it is blessed with nine of them! It has at least three orchestras and a jazz band as well. They employ multiple art teachers as well. Their community undoubtedly values the arts as an integral part of the educational experience and invests accordingly while other schools share YouTube videos of how there’s music in math (Look, they’re counting!) or math in art (Can you see the triangles?). What this school choir has created is so much more profound than the viral videos of one kid jamming in their room, no matter how talented that kid happens to be.

The music education professionals in this school community have pulled off something impossibly hard as arts teachers are often called upon to do. The result is everything that justifies the future viability of public education.

This investment in kids learning to do something well together, including the cost of arrangers and editors to produce this video, sends students the message that they are loved and much is expected of them. Doesn’t every student deserve that?


Note: Having the audacity to point out that arts programs are under appreciated or underfunded immediately provokes school librarians and teachers of other subjects to exclaim their deprivation.  The race to be the most aggrieved by so many educators is disempowering and counter-productive. We must unite to create and advocate for a modern liberal arts education for every child.


Official video of Kurt Elling’s recording of American Tune

The following is the post on Kurt Elling’s Facebook page. It tells the backstory of remarkable high school video (above).

EXCALIBUR’s deeply moving performance of American Tune is emblematic of these times under lockdown. These talented Fairview High School Choirs students from Boulder, CO – isolated from each other – sang into their phones and the finished result is amazing!

Choir director JANICE VLACHOS had commissioned KERRY MARSH to arrange KURT ELLING’s version of American Tune for Excalibur to perform this school year.

JANICE VLACHOS reflected, “The lyrics hit so deep on this one and it was a comfort all year long to us knowing that there have been times the world has felt in turmoil and that we’ve been in this place before. The words ‘it’s alright, it’s alright’, have been soothing to all of us. We sang this song multiple times throughout the year and we were planning on singing it at the last concert, and then coronavirus hit.

“We walked out of school on March 12th and never returned. We were heartbroken on so many levels – the global consequences of the virus and in our own small world of not being able to singing together. We were also saddened to realize we didn’t have a great recording of American Tune. So we recorded it on our phones, and Kerry Marsh mastered it for us beautifully. I often find myself thinking of the lyrics as I’m searching for solace during this time.

Arranger KERRY MARSH notes, “I feel that this is one of the most important arrangements I’ve written thus far in my musical career, frankly. Based on the transcendent recorded version by Kurt Elling, and arranged during the most uncertain time in at least my own lifetime, this prescient Paul Simon composition connects with our modern times in a way that a typical ‘chart description’ is not fit to articulate. Its meaning, as it may relate to the current gaping political divide in the U.S. (mirrored in many countries worldwide, certainly) or certainly the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, will be best communicated by each group that performs it.

“These young musicians (and their director) are absolutely amazing. It was humbling to work on this, and [my partner] Julia Dollison and I shed buckets of tears throughout the process. Really proud of what they’ve accomplished with this and everything else, and confident that this currently messed up world is in very capable hands when these folks take charge.

“As a part of the celebration of their releasing this, I’ve just made this chart available at KerryMarsh.com. Kurt Elling’s version (arranged by Christian Elsässer) was an incredible source of inspiration to work from. Paul Simon’s composition has proved timeless…would that it weren’t so, actually. But these students, in their interpretation of his lyric, provide great hope.

Fairview HS Orchestra director DAVID RUTHERFORD adds this behind-the-scenes perspective:

“Your experience is this: For 7 minutes you watch all their beautiful faces, all together, side-by-side, shining at you with all the love of singing they’re known for. Your heart overflows with the beauty of the music piped through your earbuds. And you smile and say, ‘Beautiful!’

“But think about the experience for each student in the creation of the video. Alone, listening to a click track and accompaniment. No blend. No harmony. Multiple takes because of all the silly imperfections one begins to focus on in a myopic environment like that. Am I in tune? Was I early? How is this vowel? Where is this cutoff? The insecurities never end.

“Then each video is sent off to the producer and engineer, who take all 26 videos and painstakingly line up the sound, which takes literally weeks to do in front of a computer screen. After hundreds of hours, finally, all the consonants are together, the imperfections in pitch have been tweaked out, the entrances and the cutoffs are perfect, and the quality of sound from an iPhone microphone has been processed to become nearly studio quality. Finally the video, after another week, presents those beautiful faces artfully for maximum effect when you watch and listen.

“Again for the students, there was no shared experience here. There was no ensemble. Look at each one of those faces and think about it from their perspective as they sing – the space past that black border is tragically empty.

“So how can they sound so good? Because they remember what it was like to sing together, and they recreate that in their minds. This is a song they had sung all year long – I performed it with them on several occasions. They know how it feels to sing it as an ensemble, to blend their voices into one, and oh my goodness do they know how to connect with an audience. So they sang at an iPhone screen, remembering all this, pretending they were together singing for you….

“Excalibur, thank you for this reminder of just how valuable music is to all of us. The tears on my face are real.”