“A little bright spot in a very dark time”: Music at Mill River
Editor’s Note: The Underground Workshop is a collaborative network of student journalists from across Vermont. Registrations are now open for our big project this spring: “A climate report for our schools”. We also look forward to posting more stories like this one promoting the arts: reviews of student performances, profiles of distinguished student artists, photo reports, and more. For more information, please contact Atelier Editor-in-Chief Ben Heintz at [email protected]
“A little bright spot in a very dark time”: Music at Mill River
by Morgan Manley and Annika Heintz, Mill River Union High School
Throughout the winter of 2020 and into the early spring of 2021, the Mill River singers gathered at 7 a.m., an hour before other students set foot in the school, to practice the outside, six feet apart. They bundled up in gloves, boots, hand warmers, jackets and scarves. If someone’s sheet music was blown away by the winter wind, no one else could touch it. Their voices were muffled by the masks and the distance.
When Mill River was completely removed, in September and October 2020, students were still auditioning for all three honor vocal groups. Each morning, students joined a Google Meet before their other distance learning lessons from their living room, basement, and bedroom. While students and teachers alike were grateful for the opportunity to continue making music, going virtual posed a unique set of challenges.
Kristin Cimonetti arrived in Mill River in the fall of 2010 as the choir’s musical director. This year, she took on the additional role of Fine Arts Coordinator for the Mill River Union United School District. According to Cimonetti, the students suffered both emotionally and physically during distance learning.
“They have lost a support system and a sense of belonging,” she said, as well as “the power of an audience to harness excellence.” She said it was also difficult for students to get excited about the opportunities, as a lot of things were canceled without warning.
Physically, the students suffered from technique and muscle atrophy. The posture and vowel shape slipped without Ms. Cimonetti and other students there to model a good technique. When the students were able to sing together again, their tone and vocal maturity regressed.
On November 2, 2020, Mill River switched to a hybrid schedule. The students, divided into groups A and B, attended two days of school in person and one day at a distance per week. Limited by state and school mandates, student musicians were only allowed to practice outdoors, masked and 6 feet apart.
Facing the Vermont winter, the students and Ms. Cimonetti arrived at the school an hour before opening to rehearse in small honor sets for up to three days a week.
Like the vocal groups, the instrumental honor groups were only allowed to play outdoors. Having to train outdoors affects the sound quality of many instruments. Instrument PPE included bell covers, which limits sound and prevents some instruments from being fully functional.
In the face of all these challenges, how has Mill River’s music program maintained a level of excellence?
One of Mill River’s core values is that academics, sport and the arts are of equal importance, fostering a multi-faceted student body. Although they are held outside of the academic day, the Honor Sets are graded courses. Sports team coaches understand that these lessons precede training. Conversely, it is understood that games take precedence over repetition. Avoiding conflicts between matches, important academic dates and concerts is a priority.
Peter Roach, the group manager at Mill River, is also the coach of Boys Varsity Soccer. He believes that as part of an education in Mill River, “our job is to educate the whole person, not just a part of them.”
Students like Malori Carlson senior are taking advantage of this opportunity. Malori is involved in Senior Band, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, National Honor Society, Tri-M and three sports.
Cimonetti said that this balance is one of the things that kept her in school for over a decade. She calls her students “voice athletes” and integrates foreign language teaching into music, teaching songs in a variety of languages and discussing translations. Last year, she attended pre-calculus classes and explained how trigonometry and sound waves are related. As Rowland Fellow, Cimonetti is currently working to bring performance-based assessment and student leadership to other areas of the school.
Package opportunities at all levels scaffold students and prepare elite groups for success. In middle school, students can audition for Vivace, a treble ensemble, and Cantiamo, a changing voice ensemble. College students can also participate in the Open Jazz Lab ensemble. Once in high school, the high-pitched vocals can audition for Tempo Tantrums and the shifting vocals can audition for Clef Hangers. High school students on any vocal part can audition for Chamber Singers, the school’s most elite vocal ensemble. Instrumental students can audition for Jazz Band or continue in Jazz Lab. From the Jazz Band audition process, students are also selected to perform in Jazz Combo.
Miguel Levy, a sophomore at Mill River, is a member of Chamber Singers, Jazz Band, Jazz Lab, Jazz Combo, Clef Hangers, and Senior Band and Chorus. Miguel relishes the three hours of music he has on an average school day.
“The fun I have… helps me keep a positive attitude in classes that I don’t like so much,” he says. Miguel said making music, even from a distance or outdoors, had helped him get through the pandemic: “It was a little bright spot in a very dark time.”
Miguel is also a member of the Mill River Tri-M Honor Society. Tri-M members dedicate their time to music-specific volunteering both at school and in the community. Students apply and are approved by existing members. In the past, the group has volunteered at concerts, organized music, and raised funds for charities like Ronald Mcdonald House.
Josh Bowen, senior and president of the Tri-M section of Mill River, describes the group as “a very talented group of musicians who want to improve our music department, our school and our community.” Over the past semester, the group has focused on organizing sheet music for Mr. Roach and organizing a coat drive for the community.
The mentorship that occurs in Mill River’s music department is critical to its success. From the seventh grade on, students are not only taught by their teachers; they are also supervised by older students from the Vivace, Cantiamo and Jazz Lab ensembles. These groups, which are mostly made up of college students, often have high school students as mentor members. They are the model of good vocal technique, work ethic and camaraderie.
Andrew Loose, a new Mill River music faculty member this year, said small ensembles provide the right environment for natural mentorship. “It brings new students into the culture,” he said. In Jazz Lab, members of the most elite groups lead sections, small workshops focused on a specific part, within that group.
Miguel Levy said one of the biggest experiences he and the younger students missed during the pandemic was being able to play with members of the upper class. In 8th grade he had the opportunity to play with Daniel Graves, then senior, whom Miguel describes as “an extraordinary trumpeter”.
Miguel is worried about students younger than him. “They are in 8th grade and have never had the opportunity to play with a Daniel Graves.” Mentorship is a key part of the Mill River music program which is being rebuilt after distance learning.
The 2021 school environment had fewer restrictions for musicians. While the masks and bells are still in place, students are allowed to train indoors and attend school five days a week. As Omicron rises, auditions for the Allstate and New England ensembles are via video submission, as opposed to traditional in-person auditions, but the Mill River musicians are still preparing for the early spring performances.
Mill River has successfully hosted three concerts, with COVID measures in place for performers and audiences. In December, Mill River hosted two separate winter concerts, one for vocal musicians and one for instrumentalists, and the Showcase Concert in October featured one song from each musical group. Under COVID-safe protocols, the show was presented in two parts. The college ensembles performed first, then the audience left and was replaced by the audience from the high school segment.
The energy was palpable. “Everyone wanted to be there,” Mr. Loose said.
Ms. Cimonetti described turning around after the final song, a performance of Earth Song by the Senior Chorus: “I said, ‘The music from Mill River is back,’ and the crowd started screaming and screaming. .
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