‘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.

watch the 2017-2018 big band in action

The current Big Band members at the Trottier Middle School in Southborough, Mass. — led by the larger-than-life music director Mr. Clark, of Mr. Clark’s Big Band fame — are continuing to carry on the school’s tradition of sharing their music with their unique brand of unbridled enthusiasm.

33784860_2243272132366728_5795502403910369280_nThe Trottier Middle School’s Facebook page recently featured a video of the 2017-2018 Big Band playing “Uptown Funk” during a school assembly. Seeing the joy on the faces of the middle school students reminded me of the Big Band students I observed during 2012-2013 school year, whose journeys I chronicled in Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room. I really miss the time I spent in the Trottier band room observing Mr. Clark and those students hone their skills and tell really bad jokes.

However …  I’ll get an opportunity to revel in Big Band tunes during their June 14 Jazz Night performance at the Trottier Middle School at 7 p.m. Proceeds from the event will benefit the American Cancer Society.

You can get an audio preview of this year’s Big Band repertoire by listening to the middle school musicians perform on WICN 90.5 FM Jazz+ for New England on Howard Caplan’s “The Saturday Swing Session” on Saturday, June 9 between 11 a.m. and noon.

*To watch the video of “Uptown Funk” performance, click here*

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.

f8f5e515-78e3-46c4-b15a-b6df7ca57768

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.

Listen to Mr. Clark & Me on WICN

WICN interview photosWICN 90.5 FM host Howard Caplan kindly shared a recording of the interview he had with band director Jamie Clark and me during his Saturday Swing Session show.

We listened to recordings of Clark’s middle school jazz band from Southborough’s Trottier Middle School, as well as discussed teaching, inspiring young musicians, and the book, Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room.

Take a listen:

New This Week: Kindle Version of Book (Plus Audio Interview, Recording of Band)

Screenshot 2017-12-04 10.14.05

Want to hear what Mr. Clark’s voice sounds like? Want to hear him talk about Mr. Clark’s Big Band, the ups and downs of teaching middle school? Want to hear a recording of the jazz band premiere “Kaleidoscope” at the memorial service for their beloved friend Eric Green, for whom the piece was written?

The Kindle version of Mr. Clark’s Big Band, out this week, contains those special goodies.

However, if you’re a lover of all things tactile–count me among them–consider getting the music lover, the teacher, the band parent, music student in your life a copy of the paperback book for the holidays. Better yet, get them both the digital and the paperback and they’ll think you are a wildly generous soul.

An added Christmas/holiday bonus: If you email me, you can buy a copy of the book which I will sign and mail to the recipient of your choice! mereditheobrien@gmail.com. You will be my (and their) holiday hero!!

Image credit: Amazon.

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.

 

‘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.

SmartMusic’s ‘5 Lessons from Mr. Clark’

Screenshot 2017-06-13 17.22.41

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.