Baystate Parent profiles ‘Mr. Clark’s Big Band’

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Baystate Parent Magazine’s editor Melissa Shaw spent a lot of time speaking with me about the several-years-long process of writing and researching of Mr. Clark’s Big Band. Her piece about the book, about Jamie Clark, and about Suzy Green’s reaction to the project, is featured in the July issue of the magazine.

Shaw watched Clark in action herself when she took photos of him (see above) conducting the Trottier Big Band at their Massachusetts Association of Jazz Educators competition, in which they received top honors.

Here’s an excerpt from her piece:

The book follows the band members and Clark through the 2012-2013 school year, all leading up to a year-end memorial service, at which the group would play a brand-new, professionally composed jazz piece commissioned in [Eric] Green’s memory.

“Kaleidoscope,” created by composer Erik Morales, is described as an “incredibly unique” and complicated swing number that proved difficult for the young musicians, thanks to scheduling and emotions.

“The students didn’t get [the sheet music] until late in the year,” O’Brien recalls. “All the kids I talked to said they were so afraid of making a mistake — a mistake equaled disrespecting his memory. Two weeks before the Eric Green Ceremony I was listening to them saying, They are never going to master Kaleidoscope. I was so worried. I asked Mr. Clark, ‘How do you think they’re going to do? This seems very precarious.’ His answer: ‘They just have to.’ It surprised me how things just shifted; I don’t know what that magic shift was, and then they got it. I don’t understand how they go from shambles to kicking it.”

After successfully debuting the song at Green’s memorial, O’Brien describes the children’s sense of relief as “palpable.”

“Afterwards, they were in the cafeteria, acting like kids, they seemed happy,” she recalls. “They seemed, like, ‘We did it. We’ve honored him,’ almost giving themselves permission to move on. But that whole fear of disrespecting him, I felt, hung over them the whole year.

“It’s not just mastering the notes on the page,” she continues. “I think one of the things Mr. Clark focused on is how can they safely process their emotions through the music because he would try to make the band room a place of openness, of safety. Where, if they were playing a ballad and it’s really emotional, it’s OK to be emotional here and to express it in the notes. That’s a really hard thing to communicate to anybody, never mind children who are going through the rockiness of adolescence.”

Read the whole story here.

Image credit: Melissa Shaw, Baystate Parent.

‘Mr. Clark’s’ signings at Jazz Night & Tatnuck

jazz night 2017Thank you to all the folks who bought books at my recent book signings. It has been an absolute pleasure to meet current and former music students, current and former music teachers, hosts of radio jazz programs (like WICN’s Howard Caplan and Tom Nutile) as well as fans of an uplifting story about a band director helping his students find their way.

Trottier Jazz Night

I was honored to appear at Jazz Night at the Trottier Middle School in Southborough, along with my drummer son Jonah (see above), a former member of the Trottier Big Band who just graduated from high school (*sniff*).

I met current Trottier Big Band members who excitedly told me their own Mr. Clark stories, and spoke with professional musician/trumpet player/vocalist Christine Fawson, who performed with the Big Band, about teachers who make an impact on their students.

To see what kind of magic Clark inspires, take a look at what his current eighth grade Big Band members did at the end of Jazz Night 2017 (see video above). As a surprise gift to their band director at their final performance as middle schoolers, the students taught themselves Nina Simone’s Feeling Good and played it for him. At the song’s conclusion, you can see Clark is the first one to leap to his feet to applaud.

Additionally, I learned that Trottier Middle School has added Mr. Clark’s Big Band to its summer reading list.

tatnuck signingTatnuck Books

A local independent book store, Tatnuck Books in Westborough, MA (right), hosted a book signing for me where a retired music teacher told me she’d read about the event in the local newspaper and was looking forward to reading the tale that reinforces what she already knows deep within her bones: music education makes a tremendous difference to children.

As if to put an exclamation point on the teacher’s statement, a former Westborough music student later told me she not only bonded tightly with her middle school music teacher, but that she sorely misses her band room days.

Southborough Public Library

southborough library

My local library in Southborough — the Massachusetts town in which Mr. Clark’s Big Band is set — used social media to kindly promote the fact that they’d added Mr. Clark’s Big Band to their shelves.

Celebrate Bar Harbor Music Fest & ‘Mr. Clark’s Big Band’

Heading to the 51st annual Bar Harbor Music Festival over the July 4 holiday? 

I’ll be helping to celebrate the magic of music by signing copies of logoMr. Clark’s Big Band before and after performances by Brass Venture, the brass ensemble featuring Jamie Clark, the music teacher (Mr. Clark) featured in the book.

Brass Venture is slated to perform on Wednesday, July 5 at 8 p.m. at the Bar Harbor Congregational Church, 29 Mount Desert Street, Bar Harbor, Maine. The group will be playing music by Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Alan Hovhaness, and John Philip Sousa, as well as premiering a piece by Jeffrey Kaufman. Brass Venture will also be participating in the Young Audience portion of the festival, performing earlier in the day on July 5 at 1 p.m. at the Bar Harbor Congregational Church.

I will be on hand at both events signing copies of Mr. Clark’s Big Band. And since Jamie Clark will be around, you could get him to sign your copy as well.

 

 

 

SmartMusic’s ‘5 Lessons from Mr. Clark’

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SmartMusic has published my blog post, “5 Lessons from Mr. Clark: How Risk-Taking Teaching Can Benefit Kids.”

He doles out hugs like they’re candy. In fact, he doles out candy too. And Pop Tarts, Wheat Thins and ramen noodles. He lets students eat, hang out, and listen to music in his middle school band room during lunch. He once gave a student rides to early morning Big Band rehearsals when her suddenly-widowed mother couldn’t. He often shouts at his musicians—ages 11 through 14—when their playing offends his musical sensibilities. At least once a year, he kicks members of his Big Band out of the band room if he thinks they haven’t been putting in their best effort.

… In an era when teachers are often expected to soften their language so as not to offend, to keep physical distance from students, and to refrain from raising their voices, Clark is an outlier. However Southborough parents, students, and fellow teachers laud Clark’s teaching techniques, particularly as he applied them in the year after Green died. 

Jazz Night 2017: See the Current Mr. Clark’s Big Band in Person

jazz night 2017 flierWant to hear what Mr. Clark’s current Big Band sounds like in person?

Come to Jazz Night at the Trottier Middle School in Southborough, Mass. on Thursday, June 15 at 7 p.m.

Jazz Night has been the capstone event to the Trottier Big Band’s year for eight years running. It features a guest musician and a sampling of the myriad pieces the middle school jazz musicians have played throughout their year.

During the 2012-2013 school year I chronicled in Mr. Clark’s Big Band, the band played sixteen pieces on Jazz Night even though their lead trumpet player was en route to Children’s Hospital in Boston to have an emergency appendectomy, another trumpet player was out sick, and a bari sax player’s mouth was aching because he got braces on his teeth less than twenty-four hours before the performance. Berklee College of Music professor Walter Beasley, a professional saxophone player who gave private lessons to the Big Band’s lead sax player, was their guest performer. Donations were being collected for the One Fund to help those injured in the Boston Marathon bombing which happened a little over two months before Jazz Night 2013. The notion of “One Boston,” of the area unifying in the face of tragedy provided an unspoken echo to the unofficial conclusion of the Big Band’s own, personal year of mourning.

The final piece the Big Band played in June 2013? The tune”Sweet Home Chicago,” made famous by the Blues Brothers. (You can listen to a recording of that very performance by scrolling down the right-hand side of this web page to the “Listen to the Big Band” widget, and clicking on song number 10.)

Here’s how it’s described in Mr. Clark’s Big Band:

Mr. Clark egged the audience on, turning to face them, raising his hands above his head and clapping in time. The crowd eagerly complied. The song, a monument to attitude and power, was fueled by an entire year’s worth of work during which [the students] plowed through grief and heartache. The resolute clapping and the faith of their band director pushed them to its final blast, which led to a standing ovation. Just when I thought the kids were about to keel over, Mr. Clark had them play the last dozen measures again.

Then came the celebration.

This year’s guest artist is another Berklee College of Music professor, Christine Fawson, a professional jazz trumpet player and vocalist, and the first female artist to appear with the Big Band. Donations will be collected to help a local family, the Fiores, whose children were students of Mr. Clark’s, whose restaurant burned down in a March fire.

Mr. Clark tells me that Erik Morales‘ “Kaleidoscope,” the jazz chart written in Eric Green’s honor and premiered by the Big Band featured in Mr. Clark’s Big Band, is on the Jazz Night set list.

‘Mr. Clark’s Big Band’ Goes to Pops Night

Displaying IMG_2576.JPGThank you to the Northboro Southboro Music Association for allowing me to have a book table at their annual Pops Night at the Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, Mass.

The event was attended by over 900 people and featured music from every instrumental and vocal group in the school, many of whose members were featured in Mr. Clark’s Big Band.

Displaying IMG_2574.JPGFormer students of Clark’s came up to me throughout the evening and fondly recalled their days in the Trottier Middle School band room in Southborough, noting that they were grateful to have played with him. Upon noticing the rolls of sheet music in the vase on the book table — music related to Eric Green, “Kaleidoscope,” “Swing Shift,” and “A Kind and Gentle Soul” — several teens said they were honored to have been able to perform those pieces.

My daughter Abbey (pictured above) helped me throughout the evening.

Jamie Clark himself also attended and was on hand when my son Jonah (pictured on the right with Clark), a drummer who was a friend of Eric Green’s and was mentioned many times in Mr. Clark’s Big Band, won a jazz award … that was after Clark was accosted like a rock star by parents, students and grads alike.

As I wrote in the book’s prologue about high school students who gathered to play with their middle school music director one last time in May 2015:

Since they’d left Trottier Middle School, many confessed, they’d longed for the connection, the camaraderie, the joy of the Big Band. Nothing had been able to fill the space in their hearts that was once occupied by the experience of playing in this space with this man … Mr. Clark and the Big Band are never quite in the past.

You can listen to the alums of Clark’s Big Band, and their Northborough Melican Middle School jazz alum counterparts, play Van Morrison’s “Moondance” at Pops Night.

Raves for Mr. Clark’s Big Band

Writers from two parenting blogs, Atlanta Mom and Michigan Mom Living, recently reviewed Mr. Clark’s Big Band and raved about it:

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Meanwhile, over on the Michigan Mom Living blog, Cynthia Tait reviewed Mr. Clark’s Big Band saying:

Not an easy book for O’Brien to write since she was personally touched by this story and then to take the time to spend an entire school year figuring out the WHY of Mr. Clark’s jazz band being possibly therapy for the students’ grief?  In this story, O’Brien writes the daily on-goings in the band room and regarding jazz band performances.  Some stellar, most were not as she was trying to unravel the meaning and tightness of this band and their band leader.  Why was it that everyone loved this class and respected the band leader, Mr. Clark, so much?  Was it because he pushed them, believed in them, made them feel they had something more to share?

Join O’Brien as she daily reflects the monotony of practices and performances of achievement failure and closure in this non-fiction [book].  This [book] is geared toward adults, but highly recommended for Middle School and up as it will touch some great points for students.

Image credits: Atlanta Mom Facebook pageMichigan Mom Living.

In a book club? Invite an author to discuss ‘the power of music’

Are you in a book club? Want to have a Massachusetts author join you?mr-clarks-cover

Contact author Meredith O’Brien about having her visit your book club and discuss the “moving portrait of how a grieving school can heal through the power of music,” Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room, recently featured in the Boston Globe.

New York University assistant professor of jazz studies Dave Pietro called Mr. Clark’s Big Band: “a chronicle of all that is good and precious in music education and how it can help young people to learn so many important lessons of life; lessons about compassion, respect, bravery, listening to others, working together as a team, accepting others for who they are, and finding one’s inner passion.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Madeleine Blais said, “A drumroll, please, for Meredith O’Brien’s endearing and inspiring Mr. Clark’s Big Band. … [T]his book focuses on one school band in one small town after the sudden death of one of its members. In the end, music is the main character: the joy, the hope, and the solace it delivers to a bereft community.”

Award-winning novelist Suzanne Strempek Shea wrote: “With a journalist’s commitment, a teacher’s passion and a mother’s heart, Meredith O’Brien brings her readers to a community leveled by sudden loss then bundled in music’s ability to heal. As well as illustrating the author’s stellar talent, Mr. Clark’s Big Band shows her radar for a timeless story, one that underlines in gold the power of unsung heroes all around us.”

Teacher and author Robert Wilder called the book, “a moving portrait of how a grieving school can heal through the power of music.”

Email Meredith: mereditheobrien@gmail.com.

Listen to Mr. Clark & His Big Band

At the party celebrating the launch of Mr. Clark’s Big Band, Jamie Clark led the current middle school members of his jazz band as well as jazz band alums in a rousing rendition of “Groovin’ Hard.”

The alums, who had no rehearsals before the party, used their muscle memory from their middle school years to play what’s now considered a Big Band standard, a piece they hadn’t played in years. Several of them gave up playing musical instruments after leaving Trottier’s Middle School and their beloved music teacher, Mr. Clark.

As he thanked those who attended the book launch party, Mr. Clark spoke eloquently about the importance of risk-taking teaching and being able to work in such a supportive environment.