The Secret to a Triumphant Winter Concert? Harmonious Collaboration.

by Performing Arts teachers Joseph Ancowitz, Yvonne Hicks, Nick Kadajski, Andrew Leonard, Jenny Pommiss, and Simon Thomas-Train

The winter concert always has some element of collaboration in it during a normal year. That was especially true in the year of 2020. The concert came together because of the contributions of the students and arts teachers working together like no other year. 

The jazz bands worked on music remotely and in person. The students in the jazz groups often just learned the technical parts of the music in person without making any sounds on their instruments. While they were at home they would zoom in to class and individually play back what they had learned. They recorded their parts into an online recording program called Soundtrap. Their parts were then downloaded and mixed using Logic. Each music teacher followed a similar method for creating their groups portion of the concert. It was a time consuming process, but well worth the effort. 

As the start of this school year approached, figuring out how the strings classes would be able to function effectively, what with some students being fully remote, and others attending classes on an alternating in-person/remote basis, became increasingly important. Technology would have to be heavily used, and that the glories of playing chamber music would likely just become “sterile” music making. Even with music being a “universal language”, one that draws people together, and connects persons of all types, we were tentatively embarking on a new and unfamiliar “adventure”.

Indeed as school opened, all of us, teachers and students alike, found ourselves feeling isolated in our new “environment”! We were now mostly on Zoom, unable to communicate musically in the chamber music ensemble settings we were accustomed to. And yet, as school progressed, we all learned new ways to work together, and to achieve good musical results. Our work took on a new form: we found ways to breathe together, to listen more intently, to take pride in our accomplishments — no matter how small, to scale new heights, to work harder than ever to attain our goals, and not to give in to the restrictive nature of working in a pandemic! We stopped taking “just playing our instruments” for granted! Every little detail now meant something special.

GraceNotes, like the other music ensembles, also had a different and much more challenging semester than usual. Instead of the ensemble being in LL6 all together singing in harmony, we had to create music while being isolated. This forced each singer to work on themselves individually as artists — really focusing on what they bring to the table. The hardest part for this was to keep the feeling of connection and love that GraceNotes has created over the course of the last few years. Our weekly zoom rehearsals aimed to keep this spirit of connection alive and I believe it is apparent in the outcome of the videos that we were able to pull this off. 

The Grace Dance Ensemble has continued to meet over Zoom to dance together. As individuals and an ensemble, we have explored the full range of possibilities available to us as a community of dancers and choreographers. Ensemble co-directors, Ms. Pommiss and Mr. Simon-Train jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with the vocal and instrumental ensembles once again. For the evening’s finale, Ms. Pommiss, Mr. Leonard and Mr. K decided early in the semester that they wanted to collaborate on a piece that would be an homage to New York City. What better song than “New York, New York”? For “An Ode to New York”, Dance Ensemble members learned choreography in their living rooms that was then brought outside onto city streets, and into parks, and backyards. This footage was then edited together with that of Jazz Ensemble and Gracenotes, along with the mastered tracks. 

Another main aspect of collaboration for this concert was the Protest Anthem Project, which was created by the Dance Ensemble and GraceNotes. This project began at the beginning of the school year, and was designed to give students the opportunity to make sense of what is going on in our world, and to find alternative, but no less powerful, ways of communicating, most notably through movement and song. Many of our Dance Ensemble and Gracenotes students use the arts as a vehicle for change, and as a place to be both seen and heard by the community. This is in part because these students stand on the shoulders of alumni, who came before them and paved the way by bridging activism and the performing arts.

During Dance Ensemble’s late August preseason, Dance Ensemble co-directors Ms. Pommiss and Mr. Thomas-Train invited Soleil Andrews ‘19, Stephanie Cox ‘19, Georgia Ossorguine ‘18 and Camille Segre-Lawrence ‘18 into the virtual studio. They zoomed in from dorm rooms and off-campus apartments to discuss their inspiration and teach excerpts of their pieces. From there, dancers and singers were placed into artistic teams to decide on issues that were important to them, such as the Black Lives Matter Movement, racial violence and police brutality, climate change and the environment. The resulting videos represent a collaboration where we navigated the realities of working over Zoom. GraceNotes used inspiration from recent and historical protest movements to create original songs that are designed to motivate, inspire, and lift up. Using these original songs, Dance Ensemble members created parallel works of dance as their own acts of protest. Despite the distance we are all facing, this project gave us all the opportunity to connect, process and heal. 

Despite its new format, the triumphant nature of the winter show remained unchanged, showcasing and celebrating a semester of hard work, dedication, and beautiful music.

You can view each performance below:

Want to Prompt Discussions on Equity in Science? Start by Drawing

by Jean-Robert Andre, Dean of Equity and Inclusion

Last year, at the People of Color Conference in Seattle, WA, I attended a workshop called “Incorporating Issues of Equity and Inclusion in Middle School Science.” There, two educators helped dispel the myth that science (and math) classes aren’t as amenable to incorporating antiracist and inclusive curricula as, say, a humanities class is. Through a number of activities and conversation prompts, they loaded our tool belts with things to take back to school. At the start of this year, I was contemplating how to weave our efforts towards anti-bias and antiracism more deliberately into my 5th grade curriculum, and I remembered one activity they suggested that has been reproduced in science classrooms across grade levels.  

The prompt is simple – “Draw a scientist doing science.” Let me venture a guess as to what you may have pictured: A scientist in a lab coat, perhaps with frizzy hair giving “mad” scientist vibes, most likely male, most likely white, working indoors at a table surrounded by colorful and bubbling chemicals in beakers. Was I right?

This prompt has been documented with upwards of 20,000 students, and more often than not, the above description is what usually takes shape on the page. As expected, this representation of scientists and their jobs was most prevalent in my classroom too, with a few exceptions. I appreciate this activity because, as a class, we can examine our drawings across any number of different identities and factors. How many students drew an adult? How many drew a woman? How many drew a person of color? Who didn’t draw “potions”? What else are your scientists doing? Why did you draw them this way? The conversations we had after students put their pencils down were fruitful, as we dug into where these “mad scientists doing chemistry” tropes came from, and how our actual experiences with science are quite different! We brainstormed all the different fields students have been exposed to in their academic careers thus far from human physiology to astronomy, entomology, botany, geology and physics. We landed on how systems of discrimination such as sexism, racism, and other ideologies throughout history have limited many people’s access to education, training, research, and jobs in STEM, and how this has led to a certain image of science that we associate with today. In the end, we looked around the room and affirmed that each person there was a scientist, and that science can be for anyone!   

Hearteningly, since this experiment was created several decades ago, there’s been a noticeable increase in a few areas of representation. In the 60’s and 70’s, roughly 1% of students drew women scientists. By the late 2010s that number rose to almost 30%, with 58% of young girls drawing women on the page. It became clear to researchers that stereotypes about the STEM fields were taking root at a very early age – all the more reason for increased representation, not only in the media, but in the classroom itself.  

Each year, Ilta Adler and I introduce the 5th graders to the Ada Lovelace Project as a joint technology and science class assignment. The project draws inspiration from Ada Lovelace Day, founded in Britain in 2009 to honor Ada, the first computer programmer, and women throughout history and the present working in STEM. The walls of South Hall are lined with depictions of Mae Jemison, the first Black astronaut; Hedy Lamarr, inventor of technology that opened the door for modern GPS (and world-famous actor); nuclear physicist, Chien-Shiung Wu; and Wanda Diaz Merced, who translated light energy from stars into sound so that visually impaired scientists like her could make breakthroughs in astronomy, too.  

With each intentional effort, we can further open the door for our students to see themselves in STEM fields, which in turn means more opportunities for future generations of young learners. The first step is recognizing our assumptions and blindspots and actively working to undermine them – in our case, one poster at a time.