‘Freakishly Fabulous:’ The Big Band is What’s Right With America, Education

News in the world is depressing me right now, and I’m a three-newspaper-a-day kind of person, someone who affectionately calls herself a news junkie.

So if you’re like me, you need something uplifting and good right about now … like watching members of the Southborough middle school jazz band — the jazz group I profiled in Mr. Clark’s Big Band — play their hearts out for their wildly dedicated band director, Mr. Clark.

I attended the group’s annual Jazz Night last week and was, as usual, blown away by the “freakishly fabulous” way in which this band performed. (WICN’s Howard Caplan initially coined the “freakishly fabulous” adjective when describing the Trottier Middle School Big Band; he even brought a handful of T-shirts saying “Freakishly Fabulous” to Jazz Night, at which he introduced Mr. Clark.)

The concert was exactly what I needed, what everybody needs. As we watch sobbing migrant children being wrenched from their parents’ arms along our border with Mexico, as unbridled political strife seems to be scorching and permanently dividing us, seeing middle school children simply play music and publicly shower their teacher with affection and admiration, to see parents and members of the public bathe the students and their teacher in praise, to watch Mr. Clark strive valiantly to hold back his genuine tears at the end of the 2017-2018 school year as his eighth graders prepare to leave the school and his band room, is to lift one’s heart.

My spirits were indeed lifted when I heard the band’s rendition of the 2013 Erik Morales tune “Kaleidoscope” (see above video), written in memory of Eric Green, the Trottier seventh grade Big Band trumpet player who died unexpectedly in his sleep in January 2012. The year of grief and healing students experienced in the aftermath is chronicled in Mr. Clark’s Big Band. So to hear these students — many years removed from the raw emotions of Eric’s death — play this piece with such verve, brought joy to my heart. Meanwhile their playing of Late Night Diner (see video below) was just, in Mr. Clark’s whispered words … bad ass.

THIS is what and who we are, what America can be. People working hard, working together, trusting one another, being emotionally honest with one another, coaxing the best out of one another, loving one another. That’s why, when I left the Trottier auditorium last week on a clear and warm mid-June evening, I felt a glimmer of hope amid the current darkness, and I’m certain it was more than just the glint of the light bouncing off the students’ shiny instruments.

Sharing the Story of ‘Mr. Clark’s Big Band’ in Southborough, Milford

southborough library photo

The book talk/signing at the Southborough Library finally — finally! — happened after being rescheduled three times following snowstorms and a bout of the flu.

claflin obrien and clarkParents of current and former Trottier Middle School students who attended the reading at the library (see video below) told me they were mentally and emotionally brought back to the days when our children roamed the halls of the middle school, when some of the kids played music for Mr. Clark, and when all of the students mourned the loss of their friend, Eric Green.

Two days later, Mr. Clark and I chatted about Mr. Clark’s Big Band with music fans at the Claflin Hill Symphony Orchestra’s final performance of the season, a season in which music educators were celebrated.

Some current Trottier Middle School students attended the show in Milford’s historic town hall and stopped by to greet Mr. Clark, who couldn’t play the trombone with his pals in the Claflin brass section because he recently had elbow surgery (see the sling he’s sporting in the photo below).

claflin obrien and clark2Several folks also paused at the book table to fondly remember former Algonquin Regional High School music director Dennis Wrenn, the man who helped Mr. Clark get his job in the Southborough school system and who is mentioned several times in Mr. Clark’s Big Band.

It can sometimes seem like a small world indeed.

Image credits: Southborough Access Media (first image), Scott Weiss (other two images)

Book signing with Claflin Hill Symphony Orchestra, 4/28

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The Milford (MA)-based Claflin Hill Symphony Orchestra — for which Mr. Clark plays the trombone — has invited me to sign copies of Mr. Clark’s Big Band at their final concert of the season on Saturday, April 28 at 7:30 p.m. The concert will be held at the beautiful Milford Town Hall, 52 Main Street, Milford.

Mr. Clark, who will not be playing due to an elbow injury, will be joining me as we sign books, discuss the importance of music education, and talk about the process of writing the tale of his 2012-2013 Trottier Middle School jazz band.

The concert will feature the world premiere of Vermont composer Keane Southard’s “An Appalachian Trail Symphony” as well as the playing of Antonín Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 9: The New World” and Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo.”

Image credit: Claflin Hill Symphony Orchestra.

Talking Jazz, Music Education & Mr. Clark’s Coffee Addiction on WICN

I had a blast appearing on WICN 90.5FM Jazz+ for New England with Jamie Clark (THE Mr. Clark from the book) to talk jazz, music education, the Trottier Middle School Big Band, and just how much coffee Jamie actually drinks.

Host Howard Caplan played excerpts of pieces performed by the 2012-2013 Big Band — whose year is chronicled in Mr. Clark’s Big Band — and spoke with us about Jamie’s teaching, about Jamie’s penchant for tossing pencils, and how he inspires his students to play top-notch music that sounds as if it’s produced by much wiser, more experienced musicians.

A link to the specific interview will be forthcoming. In the meantime, for two weeks only, a stream of the February 17 “The Saturday Swing Session” is available online. The interview with Jamie and me appears in the last thirty minutes of the program.

Just booked: 2/17 radio appearance on WICN Jazz+ for New England public radio

wicn_4c-152_1Southborough middle school music director Jamie Clark, the main character (and real-life dude) in Mr. Clark’s Big Band, and I will be making a joint appearance on Saturday, Feb. 17 from 11:25 a.m. through noon with “The Saturday Swing Session with Howard Caplan” on WICN Public Radio 90.5 FM.

Clark and I will be talking about the history of the Trottier Middle School’s elite Big Band, including its evolution, and the shelf-load of awards it has accumulated during Clark’s tenure, as well as how the book Mr. Clark’s Big Band, about the 2012-2013 Big Band, came to be.  Excerpts of recordings of Trottier Big Bands, including the ensemble featured in the book, will be played during the broadcast.

Given Clark’s penchant for loquaciousness, don’t be surprised if he attempts to hijack the show and stretch our 35-minute appearance into a marathon take over of the airwaves. Ya never know.

You can stream the interview live at: wicn.org.

Image credit: WICN.

Vacationing on Cape Cod? Get a signed copy of ‘Mr. Clark’s Big Band!’

Screenshot 2017-08-04 18.23.38Going to Cape Cod for vacation?

Stop into the Brewster Book Store on Route 6A in Brewster and pick up a signed copy of Mr. Clark’s Big Band.

It’s an amusing and inspiring beach selection as you read about Mr. Clark’s musings on why people eating more doughnuts would reduce global warming, why he could never be a mime, and how he once got into big trouble with his father after he killed a spider. Plus, you can find out why the teenaged Mr. Clark refused to apologize to his high school principal after he got into a physical altercation with another student in the lunch room.

Image credit: Meredith O’Brien.

Bah Hah-bah: Signings in a seaside town

Over the Fourth of July week I once again shadowed Southborough’s Trottier Middle School music director Jamie Clark. Only this time, it was to watch him play his trombone with his brass quintet, Brass Venture (see below), during the Bar Harbor Music Festival, as well as sign copies of Mr. Clark’s Big Band before and after Brass Venture’s performances.

brass venture bar harbor 2017

The day after meeting music aficionados at two Brass Venture shows, I met former music students and teachers at Sherman’s Books as they told me about the

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affection they still hold for their music directors. Several folks said they miss their own days in middle school band rooms.

If you happen to be in Bar Harbor, I left behind some signed copies of Mr. Clark’s Big Band at Sherman’s.

Lessons from my year of observing a middle school jazz band

I am no musician. Although I may attempt to sing along with Adele while I’m driving, much to the mortification of my younger son, I am nowhere in the zip code of in tune. Sheet music reads like a foreign language to me. And yet, I’ve recently learned how potent a tool music can be when wielded by a compassionate teacher seeking to help students channel challenging emotions through their instruments.

Thus began a recent essay I wrote reflecting upon my time shadowing the Southborough, MA middle school jazz band, and its director Jamie Clark, for a year. “Music lessons from Mr. Clark,” published by Gatehouse Media,  was written in the closing days of my son Jonah’s high school career, highlighted by the nine years he played music, drums and jazz specifically, in school ensembles. I was feeling nostalgic and grateful for the months I spent quietly sitting off to the side of the Trottier Middle School band room, notebook and pen in hand as I watched. And learned.

While I didn’t learn how to read music or play an instrument during the 2012-2013 school year, the experience of observing the students and Clark at work opened my eyes:

I didn’t learn how to read sheet music. I still couldn’t sing. I couldn’t blow a note on a trumpet, but I learned, firsthand, about the stunning power of music and one teacher to give young people the guidance, safety and comfort they desperately needed in order to move on.

Read the full essay here.

 

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.