Music in Our Schools Month: Jazz artist strikes a chord with Pittsfield school bands

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PITTSFIELD — Wednesday marks the start of Music in Our Schools Month, an annual campaign to both drum up support for school-based music education and also to sound off about the struggles schools face in providing students access to high-quality instruction, instruments and materials.

In the Pittsfield Public Schools, a new public-private partnership is being piloted through select jazz programs at Pittsfield High School, Herberg Middle School and Reid Middle School. The Education Committee of Berkshires Jazz Inc., with underwriting from The Feigenbaum Foundation, has coordinated a "Jazz Artist in Residence" program, featuring North Adams-native turned New York City-based performer-educator, Richard Boulger.

A trumpeter and composer, Boulger has previously visited schools in the context of a single-day visit, but the "residency" affords schools the opportunity to have Boulger work with jazz band students four times throughout the current school year. Boulger made a third visit to schools on Feb. 17, just before the winter school break, to help them prepare for an upcoming combined jazz concert, slated for March 29.

During his return visit to Herberg's program, conducted by Christopher Nelson-Unczur, Boulger started class by listening to a warm-up and a run through of "High Maintenance" by Gordon Goodwin.

"Wow," he said. "You have grown and come together a lot, especially the rhythm section. Let's give them a round of applause."

Then, Boulger raised the bar by saying, "I feel you can even do more."

Throughout the next couple of hours, he urged students to break down the music, listen for opportunities to put extra emphasis and punctuation on notes, and to be confident.

"I want you to make a statement when you play, and if you make a mistake, make it loudly," Boulger said.

Nelson-Unczur said he's also trying to coach his students to have the same goals and ambitions with their practice, but, he said, it's helpful to have someone like Boulger back him up.

"It's different than hearing me all the time. It's one thing if I say it, but if it's a professional in the field, well then it must be true," the teacher said with a smile. "Overall though, this is a nice opportunity for us. We've had visits before for a day, but this is more intensive and I think they're learning more."

One of the other additions this year are listening labs.

"Richard and I have been really hammering home the point that listening is an incredibly important part of learning the language, style and history of jazz," said Nelson-Unczur.

Working with the school's information technology department, a laptop lab has been set up in the music room to allow students to listen to music and playbacks of themselves, and also access software called "Amazing Slow Downer," which allows the user to slow down a piece of music for analysis without changing the pitch.

During his recent Herberg visit, Boulger worked with student soloists and encouraged them to revisit the listening labs for inspiration and to help them think about how to make their solos stand out.

"Seeing [Boulger] work with the students is a thing to behold," said Berkshires Jazz President Ed Bride, who sat in on this month's session. He and Berkshires Jazz Education Chair Art Niedeck said they are pleased at the evolution of their partnerships with musicians and city schools and see the effort as an investment in the city's future and ability to provide high-quality experiences in its public schools.

Previous programs have included a Berkshire County Arts Educators Professional Development Day with musician and former Berklee College of Music professor Joseph Smith conducting an extended session for school band directors. "The concept behind Joe's workshop/seminar is that despite having no jazz background or training, many band directors have been assigned the role of directing their school's jazz ensemble," Bride explained.

Last spring, Herberg hosted alto saxophonist, educator, and composer/arranger John Mastroianni, during a Jazz Day at the school. In addition to instruction, the middle school jazz students had the opportunity to perform for the city's fifth-graders.

Herberg eighth-grader Conner Lawton — who is playing the upright bass for the first time this year — and sixth-grade percussionists Tyler Vosburgh and Benjamin Jean Louis said they've enjoyed the experiences thus far.

"I think the more influence we have from professional musicians the better it will influence our music," Jean Louis said.

"Plus professionals can teach you all the tricks to make you better," said Vosburgh.

Lawton also said they benefit from the extra rehearsals. During a regular week, they practice before school, from about 6:30 to 7 a.m., on Wednesdays and Fridays. The residencies offer them an additional few hours of uninterrupted rehearsal time.

And it's seems to have made some difference.

"We definitely sound a lot better than when we started," said Lawton.

"I've noticed some people playing out more," Jean Louis said.

"It's cool. You can see how the evolution has happened since September when we were kind of feeling things out," Nelson-Unzur said. "It's all these little things that we're learning that's going to make the biggest difference."


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