The Gift of Musical Language
It’s a “Sign” of Service amid Uncertain Times
By NAfME Member Lori Schwartz Reichl
This article was originally published in December 2020 for Saint Bernard School.
“There is only one way to look at things until someone shows us how to look at them with different eyes.” ~ Pablo Picasso
Saint Bernard School, a Catholic co-educational school located in Uncasville, Connecticut, enrolls students from 6th through 12th grade with a comprehensive mission to promote academic achievement and generate growth in maturity, behavior, character, and service to others. “Music is an essential part of the experience that makes us who we are,” states Don Macrino, Head of Saint Bernard School. Macrino boasts that the school has enjoyed a reputation of having an excellent music program. “Many families select our school for that reason,” he says. However, with recent limitations placed upon schools by local, state, and federal health entities, “music has suffered in particular,” shares Macrino. “While we understand the necessity to prohibit most music performances,” Macrino explains, “our musicians are frustrated. Their artistic expression has been silenced.”
Anne Halloran Tortora is the Director of Music at Saint Bernard School where she directs the Concert Choir. Tortora is a proponent of educating the whole child and motivating each child to grow as a student, musician, and leader. “I want my students to grow the music within themselves, but it means so much more to be able to recognize their personal growth,” declares Tortora. She mentions that this growth includes developing skills relating to communication and leadership, and especially developing a sense of community. “In its purest sense, I believe musical ensembles represent community at its best. Each of us directly contributes to the greater good. We are responsible to one another as we work towards a common goal of creating beauty,” remarks Tortora. This common goal includes communication through musical language.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has limited active music-making in the traditional framework, Tortora indicates, “I know that I’m just one of thousands of other music educators across the U.S. and around the world who is doing their best to keep music alive in their students in the face of this terrible time in our lives.” She’s honored to be part of this profession and says, “I salute all of my colleagues.” Similarly to her colleagues, Tortora needed a way to continue developing students’ musicianship in both virtual and face-to-face settings within the guidelines as set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the valuable studies conducted on aerosols. “It has always been common for my choirs to prepare and perform repertoire in languages other than spoken English.” In the past, American Sign Language (ASL) was one of those languages that allowed communication with diverse audiences. As she planned lessons for the fall semester, Tortora called on Emma Lemire, a member of the junior class who is fluent in ASL, to serve as a resource for instruction. Lemire demonstrated tremendous leadership skills as she co-taught the signing of a piece of music to her peers.
Tortora chose the musical selection, “Say Something” with words and music by Ian Axel, Chad Vaccarino, and Mike Campbell and the arrangement recorded by A Great Big World with Christina Aguilera. Tortora thought the song had a universal message. “It is a beautiful weave of lyrics, voices, and accompaniment. It can be a conversation between lovers, best friends, or a parent and child,” she says.
During rehearsal, Tortora says, “Our use of eurhythmics contributed positively to the development of musical line and experimentation with dynamics in the Concert Choir’s actual singing.” As the choir members became more familiar with the written music and physically signing the text, they were able to apply a heightened sensitivity to their choral interpretation. “With Emma’s signing skills,” says Tortora, “ASL became the great equalizer for us in a time when we needed to limit our vocal expressions.”
With the switch from student to teacher in this situation, Emma Lemire shares, “This was new territory [for me].” Although she has signed next to choirs performing music before, “I always signed by myself,” confesses the soprano vocalist. “Seeing it done in a group effort was an unforgettable experience,” expresses Lemire. She insists, “Everyone should know how important it is to think outside the box and try something new.” She mentions that a year ago no one could have predicted what challenges the last year would bring. “We should not let what’s going on in the world stop us from what we love,” says Lemire, “even if that means going a little out of our comfort zone.”
“The thought that came to my mind was in their silence, their emotion and voice could not have been louder.”
Tortora invited Macrino to the auditorium to observe a choir rehearsal. “I was a bit surprised, because I knew they were not able to sing,” remarks the Head of the School. The choir members, all wearing masks, stood in preparation for his arrival. “The soundtrack began, and then, in their silence, they began to sign the lyrics,” says Macrino. “As I looked out into the auditorium and saw the students several feet apart, each wearing a mask, the expression in their eyes and the beautiful movement of their hands struck a powerful and very moving chord.” With pride in his heart, Macrino confesses, “The thought that came to my mind was in their silence, their emotion and voice could not have been louder.”
When people outside of the musical ensemble started to recognize the beauty and emotions the student members of Concert Choir were sharing and communicating through a different language, “My students started to recognize the significance of what they were doing,” proudly says Tortora. “They started to realize that this became so much more than something to do because we couldn’t sing as much as we wanted.” It was a way to communicate with all audiences.
The school hired video production company, Astor Place Inc., to record a video of the students’ moving performance and the school uploaded the video to YouTube. Tortora shares, “We’ve gotten such wonderful communications from our alumni, retired teachers, and even people who have no connection to Saint Bernard School.” The performance serves as silent, yet emotional dialogue between the performers and the audience. “More than a few tears have been shed, including mine,” admits the proud teacher.
After performing “Say Something” combined with American Sign Language, Markham Puhlick, 11th grader and tenor vocalist, says, “I felt a larger sense of accomplishment and gratitude for getting to where we were [as an ensemble].” The student shares, “In the band, we’re missing a few of the brass players, and in the choir, a few of the sopranos. While it’s a small number of differences, the change of sound certainly shows.” In a pre-corona world, Puhlick says, “the choir would’ve simply gotten up on our risers and performed our pieces and been done with it.” However, this year has not permitted the typical quantity of musicians and amount of singing. “We adapted and began learning ASL and realized that this was the way for people to continue hearing our voices, without ever hearing a sound,” he says.
Although music’s quantity may be restricted, this school’s choir proves its value will not be tarnished. Puhlick, who would eventually like to apply his musical talents by performing in a professional setting, eloquently expresses his thoughts on this musical experience. “We don’t squander the obvious gift that this is, and we use it to the best of our ability. To me, this means everything. I can rest assured that my school has the capability to nurture a positive learning environment, among all the chaos of the outside world.”
The members of the Saint Bernard Concert Choir have demonstrated their school’s mission of maturity through musicianship. However, their vision of service to others has greatly been amplified during the “Say Something” performance project. From the student perspective, Puhlick says, “If I had to give any advice during these trying times, it would be to try to reach out to your community in new ways” through communication, musical performances, or volunteerism. Puhlick urges, “Donate some food, attend community events via Zoom or other online resources, or (as we did) take up a new language to better communicate with those around you.”
From the lens of an educator, the beautiful gift of musical language promotes character in one’s self, each other, and a community audience. This gift represents a “sign” of service, acceptance, and inclusion amid uncertain times. Are you making key changes during this pandemic to share your unique gifts with ALL?
About the author
NAfME member Lori Schwartz Reichl is the author of more than 60 articles and interviews for an assortment of music education publications. She is the founder of Making Key Changes where she supports the mentorship of educators and motivation of students. Lori’s experience of establishing and maintaining band programs in various educational settings has transformed her career into serving as an active adjudicator, clinician, conductor, instructor, speaker, and freelance writer.
Lori was contacted by Shari Marderness, Communications Coordinator & Advancement Assistant at Saint Bernard School, to write this feature article. Learn more about Lori: MakingKeyChanges.com.
About the school
Saint Bernard School is a Catholic co-educational school located in Uncasville, Connecticut. It is the home to 352 students from 6th through 12th grade. Enriched by values attentive to the teachings of Jesus Christ, Saint Bernard School is committed to a challenging college-preparatory education for students of all faiths. Along with supporting robust academic enrichment, athletic, and fine arts programs, its curriculum is based on the Xaverian values of simplicity, humility, trust, compassion, and zeal. Saint Bernard School provides a safe and supportive environment which promotes academic achievement and generates growth in maturity, behavior, character, and service to others. Please consider a donation to support the Visual and Performing Arts Program at Saint Bernard School.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.
December 7, 2020. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)