What Moves Us?  Music Moves Us!

[The Calhoun Chronicle, Winter 2014, by Jim Byrne ]

While the economic climate has led many schools across the country to shutter their music programs or, at best, relegate them to the endangered species list, the approach at Calhoun has been exactly the opposite. Simply put, the music program here has exploded.


Today, students can choose from a variety of music classes in strings, brass, wind instruments, chorus and chamber music as well as in percussion, keyboard, jazz improvisation and lyric writing. In fact, there are more than 20 music electives in the Upper School; in Middle School, in addition to chorus, instrumental (winds/brass) and strings, students can opt for classes like Electronic Music Lab or the newest offering, Introduction to Jazz Improvisation.

The tremendous growth in the music program has been spurred in part by scientific evidence that proves the enormous impact the study of music can have on brain development. But it is also reflective of Calhoun's historic dedication to integrating the arts seamlessly into academic studies. Plus, teachers and student musicians alike point to the collaborative nature of music performance, the discipline it instills, and, not insignificant, the sheer joy and fun that music brings. Head of School Steve Nelson, a serious violinist who once served as president of Detroit's Center for Creative Studies, Institute of Music and Dance, says his experience with and passion for music was probably why he was hired. “Certainly I was clear in my intentions when I came to Calhoun that music is an important part of overall education of kids and adults and just of humanity in general."

Shortly after arriving at Calhoun in 1998, Steve teamed with Lower School Director Kathleen Clinesmith and her husband, music teacher Ben Clinesmith who had come to Calhoun in the early '90s after running youth orchestras and working in music education to plan a strings program. Their first hire for the fledgling strings program, launched in 2002, was violin and piano virtuoso Victor Lin, who, as fate would have it, met Steve while both were Rollerblading in Central Park. “The only reason I stopped to talk to him was I needed to know who this dude with the silver hair was who had rocketed past me," says Victor.

Music teacher Brian Coogan recalls that there was “hardly any music at all" when he joined the school in 1990 as the sole instrumental teacher and band conductor. “There were some recorders and a 'music appreciation course,' whatever that means," recalls Brian. “We started with five clarinets and continued to grow over the years."

Today, there are close to 200 students in the Middle and Upper School instrumental program, performing in the all-school orchestra, Community Orchestra, chamber ensemble, band, percussion ensemble, wind and brass ensembles, and one of seven jazz ensembles…not to mention another 80 in choral groups.

Brian says the growth of the instrumental program really kicked in when the 81st Street building almost doubled in size, in time for the 2004–05 school year. The expanded building included the addition of four new floors--providing several music rehearsal rooms and a new performing arts center. Teachers like Brian, who had worked in the basement (or “down in the dungeon," as he referred to it), suddenly had their own space…and with that extra room came increased flexibility for more small-group instruction, more rehearsal space and an increased performance schedule.

The physical expansion of the school also opened the door for the music program to add electives and hire additional music teachers, including adjuncts who could provide specialization—sometimes one-on-one. “Our program has developed this sort of specialization, which is simply remarkable for a music program in a school that isn't a conservatory," says Steve. Aside from the professional music faculty, the school is populated by an unusual number of academic teachers who happen to be talented musicians. In the Lower School alone, math teacher Anthony Yacobellis is also a punk-rock musician and concert promoter; math teacher Austin Applegate is an accomplished guitarist who also gives after-school music lessons; and kindergarten teacher Tina LoGuidice moonlights as the lead singer in a rock band.

“In some cases, we didn't even know they were musicians at the time they were hired," says Steve. But because he believes in “hiring interesting human beings who can do more than just teach within their discipline," he says he's not surprised that Calhoun ends up with a disproportionately high number of teachers who are also musicians. The best part is, their passion for music frequently finds its way into the classroom, so students get exposed to music all the time—both inside and outside of the music program.

Music as Interdisciplinary Partner

Music is, in fact, interwoven with curriculum in all divisions, reflecting Calhoun's mission to seamlessly integrate the arts with other academic studies.

Debbie Morenzi, who incorporates world music into her work with Calhoun's youngest as the LS74 music specialist, notes that music is a wonderful resource for teaching social studies. “It helps the children understand the world better, and assists with issues of diversity and antiracism by allowing for a better understanding of someone else's lifestyle," she says.

Ben Clinesmith's “Sing It, Say It" program, which he debuted at Calhoun in 1993, uses music to help teach and reinforce reading, writing and math skills to first graders. Simple songs are broken down into measures and beats, and the vibrations that make up actual sound can be counted mathematically and charted in terms of waves on a graph.

An increasing body of scientific evidence supports Ben's approach, that the study of music is actually related to the acquisition of math skills as well as reading, says Steve, who points to recent research that shows that parts of the brain developed by music actually have to do with linguistics and mastering both oral and written language.

Ben's curriculum continues today at Little Calhoun under the auspices of first grade music specialist Dustin LeVasseur, who embraces music as the core of the Calhoun experience. “The arts have the ability to stand alone, but can also be woven into many aspects of learning," he says. “For me, it means having a curriculum based in creativity, where I'm able to intertwine music with any aspect of the students' lives. It's crazy to think that there isn't more experiential learning with music happening like this on a larger level elsewhere."

As students progress through the Lower School, their class time continues to include song, movement, music appreciation and percussion instruments. In second grade, they begin their first formal instrumental lessons with recorders, and then in Middle School, each student can choose to sing in the chorus or pick an instrument to learn. By eighth grade, students can opt out of music, but more than half continue on in choir or instrumental music.

An increasing body of scientific evidence shows that the study of music is actually related to the acquisition of math skills and reading. The parts of the brain developed by music relate to linguistics and mastering both oral and written language.

Cynthia Wuco, Middle/Upper School chorus teacher, likens her position in the middle grades to something of a life coach. “It's a time that can be emotional and tumultuous and filled with personal struggle," she says, noting that “singing, or any type of music instruction, gives a student who might feel as if nothing is going right just one great thing they are able to do."

Victor Lin, director of the Upper School jazz program, agrees that music gives students an opportunity to express and better understand themselves. “They need it to process all the things that are happening to them," says Victor.

Confidence and Collaboration

Karina Rajchman '12, who currently attends NYU and plays in three bands with fellow alum Josh Musto '12, acknowledges that the music program at Calhoun did wonders for her self-esteem. “Learning new pieces of music, as well as performing live, instilled a great deal of discipline and confidence in me from a rather early age," says Karina. “I quickly learned there is no feeling quite like the moment after playing a great gig, or transcribing a tough solo. When you have those skills and moments under your belt, the way you approach life each day takes on a different meaning. I truly believe music, or any kind of artistic passion, gives people a certain lust for life that you simply can't find elsewhere." Karina calls Victor Lin and Ben Clinesmith “unbelievably inspiring teachers," whose approach to teaching music is far more than a series of notes and scales that should be memorized.

Collaboration is key to the way Calhoun's music faculty approaches instruction. “Our mantra here is that every student has a job, and that job is to make everyone else in his or her band or orchestra better," says Victor. “It's not about looking good or getting your solo in the spotlight. The best person isn't any better than the newest musician. Music-making isn't supposed to be a spectacle. It's something that people should want to participate in."

Although the objective of the music program isn't to churn out professional musicians, Calhoun is indeed home to some serious talent. Pianist Tiffany Poon, a senior this year, came to the United States from Hong Kong at the age of 10 to attend the Juilliard School while concurrently enrolled at Calhoun. She has since played in numerous international venues, from Australia and Russia to Montreal and across the United States, including Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall and Steinway Hall. Most recently, she won first prize and Best Performance of Concerto Award at the VIII Moscow International Fredrick Chopin Competition for Young Pianists.

Junior Noah Krauss has also earned countless accolades—including the New York Music Competition, first on cello and second on piano. But what both Noah and Tiffany also have in common is that they chose not to take the traditional route of conservatories.

“I never really had any interest in leaving Calhoun," says Noah. “You get individual attention here, which is so great. It's really student-based." Noah recalls his earlier years at Calhoun, beginning in Middle School. “It was very inspiring to see high-caliber musicians come in and play with us," he says. He had the option of auditioning for a music school when he was 14, but opted to stay. Instead, Noah—who performs with the school's Community Orchestra, all-school orchestra and in various ensembles—decided he wanted to be a positive role model for Calhoun's younger students. “I'm just trying to show them the greatness of this program and what you can do with it if you work hard and if you have a real love for music. And I think this program really does [encourage that], because you get to play pieces that aren't necessarily common in high school orchestras. We play pop songs, movie themes and all the really great classical works, so it's a really wide spectrum. I just love it."

Jack Gulielmetti '14, a talented guitarist who attends Juilliard's pre-college program, studies composition and has actually composed for the New York Philharmonic, is another student who firmly believes in Calhoun's approach to music education. “I have friends who go to [music] schools but don't have the same access to practice rooms, instruments or faculty; I think that sets Calhoun apart," he says. “I also think you need to be a well-rounded person to play music. You can't just get inspiration from music itself; that would get old after a while and you would end up sounding like the people you listen to. You have to bring in ideas from what you read or what you do in math or something you learned in biology."

What's been most noticeable about the music evolution at Calhoun is how quickly it bonds students and faculty. Says Meighan Stoops, Director of Music, “The first level of music education is listening together as a group, and then it's on to playing music together. But the third level, when you're in front of people performing—that's when the experience is ratcheted up to an entirely different intensity. You learn that you have to take care and look out for one another. And that's something that can translate to any other scenario in life."

Music at Calhoun
Strings and Community Orchestra
Jazz Ensembles
Percussions Ensembles
Wind/Brass Concerts
LS Music

Main Building 3rd - 12th Grades 433 West End Avenue New York, NY 10024 212.497.6500

Robert L. Beir Lower School Building 2.8 Years - 2nd Grade 160 West 74th Street New York, NY 10023 212.497.6550

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