Signing Arms & Sneakers: Scenes from Granite Valley Middle School

ac82ea3d-b0de-4adb-b1d4-4a76ff1c0fd6It was in Monson, Mass. where I autographed my first arm.

And my first sneaker.

And a slightly sweaty palm.

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Students from the Granite Valley Middle School — where I spoke in March about Mr. Clark’s Big Band — were full of questions, energy, and requests for me to use my green Sharpie to sign … their various limbs and footwear. (They SWORE their parents would be totally okay with this. For the record, I remain skeptical.)

Before I spoke in the auditorium, I visited the Granite Valley band room where students assured me that their Mr. Clark — who goes by the name of Mr. Topham in Monson — is just as lively and off-center as the lead character in my book.

 

a012dafb-8c38-4c57-9cb9-84193fa88e57Later, I shared stories about how and why I came to write Mr. Clark’s Big Band about a middle school jazz band about an hour’s drive to the east, told them tales about Southborough’s Mr. Clark, and read passages aloud while a PowerPoint presentation behind me showed various images of Mr. Clark (including one of him in a goofy pink wig during a performance), and of the Trottier Middle School band room.

The image that got the loudest response? The one of chicken-in-a-can that was on screen as I read a segment from the chapter called, cleverly enough, “Chicken-in-a-Can.” At least the presentation was AFTER lunch so it didn’t spoil anyone’s meal.

a1e0c588-b981-4df5-a402-4b3fc295c218I also got the opportunity to catch up with my friend from West Springfield (MA) High School, Granite Valley’s Principal Mary Cieplik (above, on the right), who generously invited me to address her students.

If you’d like me to visit your students, or your book club, send me an email: mereditheobrien@gmail.com.

Images from Granite Valley Middle School’s “In the Loop” newsletter.

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.

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.

National music groups promote Mr. Clark’s story

National music groups have been promoting Mr. Clark’s Big Band on social media.

Go #musiceducation!

SmartMusic, MakeMusic honors Mr. Clark

goodwinSmartMusic honored Southborough’s Trottier Middle School music teacher Jamie Clark–the “Mr. Clark” of Mr. Clark’s Big Band–after one of his former star students won a nationwide jazz competition and named Clark as a chief musical inspiration.

Saxophone player Connor Jenks, who just finished his freshman year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, won the Big Phat Band Jazz Challenge and, when he was invited to Colorado to play with Big Phat Band leader Gordon Goodwin, Jenks chose to bring his middle school music teacher along with him.

Writing about Clark, Jenks said:

When I was chosen for the Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band Challenge I was told I could bring whoever I wanted. I knew immediately it had to be Mr. Clark. He was the person that got me so interested in The Big Phat Band and always told us that in addition to practicing, listening was just as important. I would come home and listen to the Big Phat Band while doing homework and then grab my sax and practice. It is thanks to Mr. Clark – and all of the other wonderful music educators – that I have dedicated my life to music and the saxophone.  

The post also mentioned Mr. Clark’s Big Band, for which Jenks was interviewed:

The story of how Jamie taught students music and how to deal with the loss of a classmate is told in Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room. Author Meredith O’Brien followed the Trottier Middle School big band during the 2012-2013 season. Her book gives us insight into the award-winning director’s unorthodox approach. … While not every educator gets a book written about them, they all make a difference in the lives of their students.

Jenks (left of photo) and Clark (right) gave professional jazz musician Goodwin (middle), a copy when they met him.

Image credit: SmartMusic

Boston Globe tells story behind the book

Screenshot 2017-05-15 10.20.27The Boston Globe’s Sunday, May 14 edition ran a “Story Behind the Book” feature on Mr. Clark’s Big Band.

Writer Kate Tuttle wrote of the book:

In Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room, O’Brien chronicles that first painful year after [Eric] Green’s death, as Jamie Clark and his musicians pulled together to remember Eric. “They wanted Eric Green to be memorialized,” she said. “I think it was very healing for them to be part of the process, and then for the kids who were in music to play the song that was written for Eric.”

Tuttle continued:

At a time when arts education is often threatened in public school budgets, O’Brien argues for its importance. “For these particular kids, the emotional outlet that the music provided them, I think it was very powerful,” she said. “To these kids the music was their way of saying ‘We care; we love you; we miss you.’ ”

Trottier Middle School celebrates ‘Mr. Clark’s Big Band’

book launch bandParents, educators, students and friends converged on the Trottier Middle School in Southborough, Mass. on Sunday to celebrate the publication of Mr. Clark’s Big Band.

Trottier School Principal Keith Lavoie emceed the event, introducing me before I read several excerpts from the book–specifically a segment about members of the 2012-2013 Big Band debating, during a January 2013 rehearsal, which would curdle one’s stomach more: eating boneless chicken-in-a-can or “gas station sushi.” I also read excerpts including one which describes a student triumphing over her fears in order to play a solo, knowing that Mr. Clark had her back, and another about the pre-performance jitters that occur when band members learn that their lead trumpet player is heading to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy an hour before showtime.

book launch jamie meredithAfter thanking the nearly 150 people who crowded the cafeteria decorated with sunflowers, sheet music and enlarged copies of the book cover, Trottier music teacher Jamie Clark (THE Mr. Clark, see pictured on the left) led the current members of the Big Band in several pieces including Paul Clark’s swinging “A Band’s Gotta Do What a Band’s Gotta Do” and Doug Beach’s sassy “Late Night Diner.”

Big Band alumni, including many students who were profiled in Mr. Clark’s Big Band and are now in high school–therefore they towered over their middle school counterparts, joined the group for the hard-charging final number, “Groovin’ Hard,” the chart made famous by drummer Buddy Rich.

Suzy Green–Eric Green’s mother–was on hand, as were the Northborough-Southborough School Superintendent Christine Johnson, former Northborough-Southborough School Superintendent Charles Gobron and Mass. State Rep. Carolyn Dykema.

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Trottier Principal Keith Lavoie looks on as I read from Mr. Clark’s Big Band.

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Jamie Clark speaks in front of his current Big Band

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Clark surprises me by pulling me up in front of the band after they finish “Groovin’ Hard.”

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I am proud to stand with Mr. Clark and Suzy Green as we celebrate the joy that is the Big Band.

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Clark is a world-class bear-hugger.

Image credits: Sharon Shoemaker

Telegram & Gazette puts spotlight on ‘Mr. Clark’s Big Band’

The Worcester Telegram & Gazette published a long piece in advance of the book launch party at the Trottier Middle School in Southborough.telegram and gazette

The article, “Book charts Southboro school band, leader’s coping with member’s death,” began this way:

Today, parents, teachers and music students in Southboro will meet to honor a rather special story. It’s told in a book about kids who lose their fellow band member and experience the harshness of grief at a vulnerable age — poised on the brink of adolescence and not really equipped to figure out their feelings.

Writer Ann Connery Frantz continued:

Subtitled: “A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room,” the book contains a virtual text for grief management, made human by the kids’ stories (anonymously) and their difficulty in setting aside fear and grief over a buddy’s death to move forward as Clark melds individuals into a team, rocking their approach to life and music.

Bloggers spotlight piece on Mr. Clark’s teaching style

A number of blogs have published a piece I wrote about the advantages of having your child in a classroom taught by someone who takes risks, who puts his or her emotions out in the open, who is willing to give the students what they really need.

updated-header-november-2016Bernetta Style: This blog ran the article under the title, “Your Child’s Teacher May be Doing Right by Giving Students What They Want.”

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TwinMom: This site featured the piece which also highlights how school officials at a Southborough, Massachusetts middle school ditched their concerns about precedent in order to provide students the support they craved.

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Books By T. Smith:  This blog also published the essay whose main point can be summarized by these two lines:

To the children at Trottier Middle School, breaking down the emotional barriers between student and teacher–which many faculty doggedly maintain as a badge of professionalism, not worrying about precedent-setting in order to tend to the emotional needs of its students was just what these children needed to emerge on the other side of grief. What I learned by watching this school for a year: sometimes you need to set the rules aside and give the students what they need.

frugalmom.jpgReading with Frugal Mom: The Frugal Mom published this piece on its Reading with Frugal Mom website and promoted it on its Adventures with Frugal Mom Twitter account. Thank you!!

Image credits: BernettaStyle website, TwinMom website, Books By T. Smith, and Reading with Frugal Mom