|–||It’s been a few weeks since Cantabile’s Third Annual Festival for Young Voices. Our guest clinician and conductor this time was New York City based composer, Jim Papoulis — an energetic and passionate advocate for music education in public schools. Jim is a prolific cross-over composer who writes instrumental, vocal, choral and electronic compositions in classical, popular and world music styles, often mixing them in the most delightful and effective ways.|
Jim first met Cantabile in 2010 at Carnegie Hall, when our touring choir was a part of the 2010 National Children’s Choir Festival which I conducted. One of the festival pieces was “Stand Together” and I asked Jim to come and give us some suggestions. Since then, we have stayed in touch, plotting a project to work on together. Jim was thrilled to accept our invitation to be the 2013 Cantabile’s festival clinician, and the rest is now history.
As with our first clinician, Canadian composer Stephen Hatfield in 2012, Cantabile singers had a fantastic and intense time learning from Jim Papolis. In three short days, Jim spent over 15 hours working with our choirs — Intermediate, Ensemble and Vocalise. He also spent a day teaching and conducting guest choirs on March 9th (if you were in the audience that afternoon, you will never forget the excitement of the mass chorus pieces, conducted or accompanied by Papoulis).
But there was another part of Jim’s residency at our festival — the part that very few saw — his workshops in San Jose public schools, organized for us by my friend and member of Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale, Suzanne Oehler. I would like to share it with you today.
When Jim and I were planning his residency activities a year ago, he asked if he could go to a juvenile jail. As usual, I thought my English was failing me, but no — Jim really wanted to give a workshop for troubled young people. He has done it all over the world as a part of his personal mission and the mission of his organization “Foundation for Small Voices” that is dedicated to “…using music to cross cultural, generational, and idealogical boundaries.”
Through Suzanne Oehler and California Alliance for Arts Education, we were able to connect with administrators in public schools — Franklin-McKinley School District and Union School District, and finally, song-writing workshops were arranged.
Jim worked with 7th and 8th graders of College Connections Academy in Eastside San Jose. We were told that these kids had never received a single music lesson as part of their school curriculum, and yet Jim was certain that they would be singing a song together at the end of the 50-minute session. And it would be a song that they wrote themselves — as a group of music creators!
With my iPhone camera ready and a welcoming smile, I sat in the back of the room, unsure what to expect, as the students poured into a small space and sat on the floor, as far from Jim as they could. Boys on one side, girls – other.
They held their huge backpacks in front of them like a shield for protection. But I could tell they were curious.
I introduced Jim and he energetically took over — “What music do you guys listen to?” he asked. “Name a performer or a song!”
Answers came fast — Beyonce, Bruno Mars, One Direction, Taylor Swift, and some others I can’t remember, and of course, the indomitable Justin Bieber…
Jim’s next question was, “What kind of music is it — pop, country, rap, R&B, rock, dubstep, screamo?” (Who knew there was a “screamo”?!)
“What is it that you like about music? Why do you listen to it? What is it about beat and rhythm that’s so cool?”
The kids started to talk! They were sharing and laughing.. The backpacks slowly migrated to the back wall. But they were very far from singing yet!
“If you could have a chance to speak to adults and speak your mind, what you would say?” Jim asked.
Giggles from the girls, silence from the boys. (Meanwhile, I am wondering if anyone would quote Pink Floyd’s “Teachers, Leave the Kids Alone!”, but that’s ancient history for these kids…)
– “Don’t treat me like I’m stupid.”
– “You don’t have to repeat things all the time — I can hear you”
– “You have no idea what’s in my head”
– “School work is hard, it’s weighing me down–that’s why I sleep so much”
And then this one, from a boy who had been quite verbose from the start:
– “There are some things that only I can see…”
“That’s it!” Jim exclaimed, “Say that again!” The boy repeated: “There are some things that only I can see…”
Jim paced the floor for a few seconds then quickly drew several short and long lines or dashes on the white board.
“This is what I hear!” he said, in a syncopated rhythm pointing at the dashes, then jumped to the electric keyboard I had brought from home and played a cool chord progression with the exact same rhythm.
The kids were speechless as if watching a magic show.Jim hummed, ”Only I can see…”, then turned to the kids and asked, “Only I can WHAT?”- “Know!”
– “Take!”Great action verbs poured in with excitement… Jim finally picked “see” and “feel.”
“Only I can see, only I can feel” — our first line was born! The melody quickly came to Jim (he always works from rhythm first, then melody comes, as we found!).
“Now what? What’s the next line?”
Two minutes later the answer morphed out of many suggestions, ‘What is inside of me.”
Jim put it together, played around with harmonization and the two different endings. Sang it several times as if still checking it.
“Now, you sing your song, guys!” The kids on the floor screamed, “No! We can’t! What?! We can’t sing…” Their body language stiffened, they put their backpacks on as if ready to leave the room any moment!
My heart sank but Jim was full of confidence. “Girls, come closer to the piano. Let’s show the boys how it’s done — it’s your song after all!”
There were a couple of girls who were matching pitch and happy to sing this refrain 10 times in a row. The rest followed timidly, chanting the words softly.
But it was working! They were singing a song they wrote in the last 40 minutes.
Now it was the boys’ turn. They reluctantly approached the piano, bunched together with backpacks on. Their voices couldn’t find pitch but they were trying.
I was in tears as I saw twenty-five 13 and 14-year old boys who have never had the joy of using their voices as instruments of music — with no training and practically no exposure.
They were struggling, but not quitting.
And I thought of our own Cantabile boys — their silver-bell voices before they change, their strong trained falsettos and budding tenors and baritones in the years to come. MY Cantabile boys that I can’t keep from singing.
I realized at this point that our Cantabile community just made a huge difference in the lives of 43 young people. I felt grateful.
At the end of the 50-minute session, both girls and boys sang together. They were still in two separate little “camps”, not mixing and most still singing out of tune. But ALL were singing!
Jim whipped out a fancy recording device, “Let’s record it, guys!” he said with excitement. “I will produce it for you later, will add beat, and guitar, then send you a CD. Sound cool?”
The students were thrilled. They belted out the song three more times, and then wanted Jim’s autograph as they left the room. It was fascinating to see what they handed Jim to autograph: a Hello Kitty post-it note, a Justin Bieber notebook, an iPhone case, and, finally, one of the boys handed him a Nintendo DS to sign!
As I finish this story, I would like to thank our singers, families, supporters and friends, our Board and staff for building such a strong and vibrant Cantabile community. Through our singers’ artistry, passion and dedication, our families’ support and generosity, our Board of Directors’ guidance and with our teaching staff’s excellence, we are able to change the world around us.
The story above is but one example.