Live music performance is so popular in the Saugerties schools that the calendar of events for December is filled with band and choir concerts for the elementary, junior and senior high schools.
The winter concert season officially kicked off November 29 with the Cahill winter concert. It was followed last week by concerts at the C.M. Riccardi and Grant D. Morse elementary schools and junior-senior high school on December 5 through 7. There were morning assembly performances as well.
Still to come are the Mt. Marion winter concert and junior-senior high winter choral concerts on December 14 and December 20 respectively. Each concert has its own snow date in case of inclement weather.
Superintendent Seth Turner is a big fan of the winter and spring concert seasons.
“I am so pleased when I get the chance to watch and listen to our students perform,” he said. “We have some of the greatest musicians in the entire Hudson Valley in our schools, and they never cease to amaze me with their abilities. The teachers and staff members who work with the children are to be commended for the outstanding jobs they do.”
All performances in the district begin at 7 p.m., and are free to all members of the public.
“Each elementary school hosts one concert, shared by their choir and band, and also holds a school assembly earlier in the day for classmates,” said Marisa Trees, a secondary school music teacher. “In my building, we hold a separate band concert and choir concert, as we have four bands and four choirs. Those groups run in order from youngest to oldest.”
In the spring, the concerts are more spread out and musically diverse, beginning at Cahill on April 17 and ending at the same school with a third grade recorder and fourth grade band concert on June 14.
Even as the offerings expand, there’s no overlap in performances. “Care is given to avoid double-booking concerts,” said Trees. “For example, if a family has student musicians in both the elementary and secondary levels, concerts will be scheduled on different nights. We cannot always avoid conflicts with regard to snow dates, but we try.”
Working with the kids
Sue Lichtenberg has been a permanent substitute for much of the fall for Bernhard Spirig’s music classes while Spirig was on leave. Lichtenberg, a retired teacher who has served as band director at the New Paltz middle school and Marlboro high school, said the public and parents might be surprised by how much happens in the days and weeks leading up to a performance.
“It’s an enormous amount of work,” Lichtenberg said. “You start working with the kids in September and start to get a feel for where they are. And then you start thinking forward at that point: What do I start passing out for the concert? What do I think they can play? How many lessons do I have with them? How much rehearsal time do I have with them? Are the kids studying privately?”
Jennifer McMann, who teaches general and vocal music at Cahill and Morse, detailed some of the work. “We rehearse after school, usually once a letter day each cycle, sometimes less, depending on the other activities that are happening in the schools,” she said. “So unfortunately, they don’t get to practice like they should, which can lead to some nerves. I will always start by naming everything they do correctly, before I name the areas they need to improve on. I dedicated one rehearsal to just looking at the words to gain their confidence with what they are singing.”
Lichtenberg credited many people with making a concert come together.
“Parents are a big part of this too, because they have to support the program, and they’re the ones who have to listen to the practice at home,” she said. “And the district, the administration, the teachers as concert time approaches and it’s crunch time, they’re very, very supportive of letting the kids come down for a little bit of extra practice, you know because ‘There’s a concert tonight!’ It’s very much a community event.”
Performing at a higher level
As one might imagine, pre-show jitters are not uncommon. “I remember watching an interview with Luciano Pavarotti, one of the greatest voices of our generation, and he was asked if he got nervous, and he said, ‘I don’t think you’re human if you don’t get nervous,’” said Lichtenberg. “That’s Pavarotti!”
McMann said it can be beneficial to get students to use their nerves to bring more to their performance. “I always tell the students that a concert should be like a roller-coaster for your emotions,” she said. “The music and lyrics should tug at the audience and relate to them somehow. It works.”
Lichtenberg said she tended to notice more nerves in the older groups of performers. “I would say that there’s a little bit more anxiety the older they get,” she said. “Kids become much more self-aware, whereas when you’re younger you’re like, ‘Oh, I have a concert tonight. It’ll be fun.’ The older you get, you’re more aware that you’re trying to perform at a higher level… But I thought all of the kids did a fantastic job, I thought all of the band directors did a fantastic job. I thought across the board everything went really, really well. It was beautiful.”
Conducting and seeing the kids perform meant a lot to her, too. Performance is intrinsically rewarding, she said. “You work so hard with these kids for months and months and months, and all of a sudden you give a public performance. Sometimes there are things that happen the night of a concert that have never happened, and you try to get those nerves out ahead of time, even though it doesn’t always happen.”
McMann agreed. She said she always has at least one student tell her “their mom cried during that song, or their dad remembers such and such song,” she said.
The students know when they sing well, McMann said. That was the best part. “They get excited and want to do it again. They are proud of themselves and that usually happens before I can say anything to them when the concert is done.”
Though she was only with the Saugerties district for a few months, Lichtenberg tapped into the joys of working in music she felt all through her career. Having kids not for just one year but for two, sometimes three, sometimes four years, provided continuity. “You get to really know the kid a lot, and the more you know the kid the more you can pull from them in terms of performance,” she explained. “And you also get very attached to them. I think at every level of teaching there’s absolutely an emotional attachment to kids.”