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.

Writers’ Panel: Talking Nonfiction & Incorporating the Day’s News Into One’s Writing

 

Bay Path University played host to its 16th Writers’ Day this past weekend, as scribes talked about how to effectively read one’s work aloud in front of a crowd (Charles Coe, All Sins Forgiven poet and author extraordinaire!) and how to turn family documents, handwritten letters, and memories into an intergenerational memoir (the fabulous Patricia Reis, Motherlines author).

The final panel was packed with tales from three writers–Kinship of Clover’s Ellen Meeropol, This is How It Begins’ Joan Dempsey, and yours truly–who discussed how we used events in the world and in our own lives to inspire our writing, as well as how we folded current events into existing narratives on which we were working. My presentation focused on the real life events in my town of Southborough that inspired Mr. Clark’s Big Band, and how I worked events such as the Newtown school shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing into my book about a middle school jazz band.

Thank you to author and educator Suzanne Strempek Shea for putting these panels together and for affording us the opportunity to spend an afternoon talking about one of our favorite subjects: writing.

Image credits: Suzanne Strempek SheaSuzanne Strempek Shea via the Bay Path University MFA Program. 

Pioneer Valley Radio Talks ‘Mr. Clark’s Big Band’

obrien_banner

Pioneer Valley Radio’s Bernadette Duncan recently interviewed me about all things Mr. Clark’s Big Band. We discussed how I was inspired to write the book, what the research process was like and about the reception it has received from the community:

“Her book is a touching real life story of pain, courage, friendship and growing up that chronicles the feelings and lives of the young members of a middle school music band who had to cope with the unexpected death due to illness of one of their classmates and bandmates.  Bernadette Duncan interviews Westfield-born writer and journalist Meredith O’Brien who will be at Bay Path University’s Writers’ Day on October 15th discussing her latest book Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, May 2017).”

Take a listen:

Image credit: Pioneer Valley Radio.

Milford’s Claflin Hill Symphony Orchestra celebrates music teachers, Mr. Clark’s Big Band

Screenshot 2017-08-21 16.12.42The Claflin Hill Symphony Orchestra in Milford, MA — for whom Jamie Clark plays the trombone — will be honoring music teachers on Tuesday, August 22 at 6:30 at the Milford Town Park.

Signed copies of Mr. Clark’s Big Band, whose main character is a hero music teacher from nearby Southborough, will be available at the performance.

Image credit: Claflin Hill Symphony Orchestra.

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’

music-man

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.

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.