Commissioned visit to Manheim High School, Lancaster, PA
Over a year ago, I was asked to write a choral piece for a girls’ vocal ensemble at Manheim High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Doctor Louise Anderson submitted a bid for a grant from the McFee Foundation which would source the commission and the flight over to work with the girls for the final week of rehearsals prior to a concert in the school’s auditorium. The plan would include me attending the concert and conducting the ensemble performing the commission. The bid was successful and this week all those plans came to fruition.
At Manheim, choir sessions are part of the curriculum and students who select this option start everyday with rehearsals. Meanwhile, other students select to go to orchestra or concert band. The school is a high school for 14 – 18 year olds, the majority of whom graduate from the middle school nearby (catering for 10 – 14 year olds). So in our terms, the high school includes years 10 – 13 / just key stages 4 and 5.
11th May – 15th May
Today I flew into Philadelphia airport and met Louise Anderson, the music teacher at Manheim who was responsible for setting up my visit and the commission. We drove for an hour and a half to Manheim and went straight to the school to look around. I was immediately blown away by the scale of everything. The school is like a textbook American high school that you see on TV shows such as Glee! There is a big sports ground with raked seating, a huge gymnasium, sports and music trophies everywhere, overly spacious corridors aligned with the classic lockers, American football gear…etc.
The resources and space available for musical activities at the school is very impressive. I have been taken aback by the sizeable vocal classroom which is kitted out with a powerful Bose sound system, large acoustic tiles, and two soundproof vocal booths. Furthermore, there are two rooms of a much greater size which house the orchestra, concert band, jazz band and marching band. Four sousaphones are lying around in one room alone! Before we left, we went in to see the 800-seater auditorium that we are due to use for the concert later in the week. It is simply stunning, with a large stage, choir risers, a grand piano and comfortable permanent tiered audience seating. It is an incredible space with professional lighting and sound.
Next we headed into the city of Lancaster for an evening meal. The main difference I have noted on my tour of the local area from Manheim to Lancaster is the architecture. The townhouses all have verandas at the front where neighbours sit out and socialise with each other (or at least that is what used to happen) and the majority of the houses are not brick but have wood or PVC siding so they look a little chalet-esque.
Jet lag had me waking up at 4.30am (9.30am BST) which was confusing but after a brief snooze, I had to get up at 5.30 anyway as I was being picked up at 7am to be taken to Manheim. School over here starts at 7.43am (!?) and I am seriously not a morning person. Fortunately, my body is still currently confused at what time of day it is so I kind of didn’t realise I was getting up so early.
At 7.50am, the female choral ensemble began their 44 minute rehearsal and this was the first chance for me to hear how they were getting on with ‘Across The Ocean’, the piece that I was commissioned to write for them and the main reason I am here. I sat back and listened to them perform it beautifully and then got to work on the finishing touches with them. For the first time in my life, I didn’t tell the singers off for singing in an American accent! Later in the rehearsal, a string trio joined us as a talented student called Shenna Shirk had kindly composed string parts for the piece. The strings really added to it and the parts were written really well. Another student called Renee Siegrist played the piano throughout this rehearsal. She is only in first year at the school but I was extremely impressed by her musicality; she was very sensitive to the singers she was accompanying and she was very adaptable to instruction and change.
The SATB choir came to rehearse in the second half of this session and one of the pieces they are rehearsing is my arrangement of Pompeii. This group took a little longer to get going but once they did, they also sounded fabulous. Initially, the boys were slightly less confident but they grew and committed themselves more and more as the rehearsal went on. It was great to see boys being involved in singing and the whole choir sounded excellent.
Block 2 (the day is split into four 88 minute blocks) was a music theory class where the students were learning about figured bass. I spent the second half of the lesson with them looking at songwriting and composing short sections of songs which I then sang back to them. This was the most challenging sight reading I’d ever done as the melodies and lyrics they wrote were rather ambitious!
The rest of the day was spent observing music lessons and preparing for the next day.
In the evening, Louise and I went to a surprisingly delicious Italian restaurant (considering it was part of a local minor airport!) and afterwards we went to watch an American film. Then followed a long FaceTime call back home. I love FaceTime!
I honestly cannot put into words the buzz and excitement I feel at hearing the pieces I was commissioned to write come together. Today, a student called Sierra Stoltzfus played conga in the piece which has lifted the whole performance and made the movement I asked them to do yesterday more fluid and natural. The only thing to add now is the bass guitar, which Chris Watson (the Director of Music back at my school, Birkenhead High School Academy) will be playing at the concert; he’ll be arriving here tomorrow. The piece is getting tighter and the emotion is now more evident with the added dynamics and blend that the girls are achieving as they approach Thursday’s performance.
Pompeii sounded much better today with the SATB choir as they all committed themselves much more; the boys particularly raised their game. We added Sierra on drum kit to this a cappella piece as well as some stomping and clapping by the students who felt they could do both the singing and clapping (syncopated differently) at the same time.
In the afternoon, Louise had set up a question and answer session for me with the music honours society at the school. I was put on the spot in a way that I’m not used to, but I soon relaxed and enjoyed the session. The students had some interesting questions about my music, my career and about the comparisons between music education and everyday life across the pond.
On finishing school at 3pm, the husband and wife who run the McFee Foundation which funded my visit came to spend some time with me and take me for dinner. They were a lovely couple with lots of stories to tell and they showed me around some interesting towns nearby. Most exciting was the fact that they took me to Hershey’s Chocolate World. We boarded a ride looking at how the chocolate is made at this world famous company’s HQ, and I bought some cookies and cream Hershey kisses afterwards. A great success.
After dinner, I was driven back to Manheim to watch the middle school’s concert. The middle school is down the road from the high school where I’ve been working yet it is just as epic and has an even bigger auditorium. The boys and girls at this school are aged 10 – 14 (years 6 – 9 in the UK) and this concert was exclusively for the 12 – 14 year olds. The most impressive thing about it was the quality of the jazz and concert bands. They are of a very high standard, particularly considering the ages of the performers. It was lovely watching some of the braver jazz band players trying some improvisations and standing up during solos.
I was warned at the beginning of today that I would be put on the spot during the choir session and asked to do a mini solo performance for the students. I perform gigs every weekend and I could say it is second nature to me but this had made me surprisingly nervous. The school kids I have been working with had a morning time exam so I spent an hour and a half in the auditorium on my own at the piano with a microphone; I had fun! Interspersed during this time was a quick tour around the stage, viewing the vast amounts of props and costumes held in the school for school shows which are a huge part of school life over here. After that, the students arrived and I sat down ready for my performance. Unsure if they would have heard it, I sang ‘Yellow’ by Coldplay, but hey – they all had. This was a relief as I then sang ‘A Case Of You’ by Joni Mitchell which, despite being closer to home for them, nobody had heard of! I finished with ‘Get Lucky’ by Pharrel Williams as I knew they would be familiar with his songs. I enjoyed performing for the school, though I definitely felt the pressure!
A full choir run through for the concert followed and the material we are due to perform is coming along nicely. We decided that we wanted Pompeii to have musical backing rather than it be a cappella because the drums on their own didn’t really work. I added piano and it suddenly felt more vibrant. Tomorrow, we are going to add Chris on the bass.
After lunch, we asked the music theory class to take it in turns to perform original songs and covers in front of the other students and some fantastic performances proceeded. There were some high quality original songs that really impressed me.
Chris Watson, my Head of Music at Birkenhead High School Academy, arrived this evening and Cheryl and I picked him up from Elizabethtown train station. On Cheryl’s recommendation, Chris and I walked 20 minutes up the road to the only restaurant in the rather desolate area the hotel was situated in. However, it turned out that this restaurant only opens Thursdays to Saturdays! Instead, we headed to a roadside bar called Cheers. This was a gloomy little spot with curtains unopened and a handful of locals propping up the circular bar. These locals however were very welcoming and it somehow felt like a real American bar; the kind of place you wouldn’t normally sample as a common tourist.
The day commenced with a full run-through of the choir material for the concert in the evening. With the final addition of Chris on bass guitar, we could do a dress rehearsal for both ‘Pompeii’ and ‘Across The Ocean’. Both songs sounded fantastic and needed little work. Max, the sound and lighting technician at the school, set up a screen and projector ready to show the collaborative video of Happy as recorded by Manheim High School and Birkenhead High School Academy. Scott Johnson from the school completed the video and it is fantastic!
In the afternoon, Louise took Chris and I on a tour of the school district. A highlight of this was watching the elementary school orchestra rehearsing for a concert due nexy work. The director very patiently took them through some simple well known tunes and the students were overjoyed at the fact they were rehearsing in the grand middle school auditorium for the first time.
The concert itself was an amazing experience. The auditorium was nearly full for the diverse programme. The orchestra opened the show and then the two choirs followed. The mixed choir did their set and finished with a rousing version of Pompeii; I was proud of their performance as they really lifted their energy levels and devoted themselves. Chansodié were next up and they did not disappoint; they are an awesome group of singers and all four songs they performed were outstanding. This was Louise’s last concert before moving on to work at a university in another state so it was an emotional farewell for her. The girls had put together a medley of songs they had sung with Louise which was a very touching moment. I conducted the last piece of their set, which was my commissioned piece, Across the Ocean. I introduced the piece and explained the thought process and meaning behind it before Renee played the opening bars on the piano. I was ecstatic with how the piece went and really felt the emotion emanating through the words the girls were singing as well as their technical expertise. Chansodié received a standing ovation which we were told is unheard of at such a concert. This was a real buzz.
Chris and I travelled New York for the weekend to sample the city for the first time. We made it our aim to sample as much music as possible. The first evening was spent at Cafe Wha watching the fabulous house band there. The next day we went to watch The Phantom Of The Opera on Broadway and then headed to the Village Vanguard on the advice of John Brackbill (the band director at Manheim) to watch some New York jazz.
I would like to thank the following people for making this fantastic project come to life:
Cheryl Burke and the McFee Foundation
Manheim Central High School
Birkenhead High School Academy
In the run up to the concert at Manheim Central High School last week, Lancaster Online ran an article on the project that I was commissioned to be involved with. More information a blog will follow, but the article is below.
READ THE ACTUAL ARTICLE HERE
Special guest, song to debut at Manheim Central concert Thursday
K. SCOTT KREIDER/Correspondent | Posted: Thursday, May 15, 2014 9:45 am
Manheim Central students preparing for this year’s spring concert have a little extra energy and inspiration, thanks to a special visitor from across the pond.
During a practice early Monday morning, composer and music teacher Matt Lammin, from Birkenhead High School Academy in England, conducted Manheim Central High School’s vocal ensemble with an enthusiasm that gave no indication that he was jet-lagged from his long flight the day before.
The ensemble practiced a song, called “Across the Ocean,” that Lammin wrote and composed on commission for the Manheim students.
The song is part of an educational collaboration between Manheim Central High School music teacher Louise Anderson and Lammin — a collaboration that will culminate at the spring concert at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 15, as Lammin conducts the students.
“It’s really an exciting thing to be a part of,” Lammin said Monday.
Perhaps being in a new place was helping him to fend off jet-lag. Lammin said he was excited to experience American culture that was outside of the usual tourist destinations.
On his visit to Manheim Central’s schools, Lammin said he was impressed by the “epic” scale of everything — from the auditorium to the sports programs to the marching band.
“Everything is bigger than I expected,” Lammin said. “On Skype I had no idea about the space that she (Anderson) was in. I just didn’t get a feel for it at all.”
Earlier this spring, Anderson’s class and Lammin collaborated via Skype to prepare the students’ performance of Lammin’s arrangements.
“Hearing it in real life is a big difference than hearing it on Skype,” Lammin said. “It’s really quite astounding what they’ve achieved, the quality of it.”
Anderson conceived the collaborative project more than a year ago, when she approached the Manheim Central Foundation for Education Enrichment to get funding for the project.
Thanks to a $5,000 grant from MCFEE, Anderson was able to commission Lammin to write compositions and arrangements for her students, collaborate with Lammin via Skype during class time and bring Lammin to Manheim to work with the students.
Anderson’s and Lammin’s classes also made a collaborative recording of Pharell William’s hit song, “Happy,” along with a collaborative music video to showcase the song.
When the spring concert opens on Thursday, the public will finally get to see the fruits of the collaborative effort, as the students perform Lammin’s original work as well as his vocal arrangements for some well-known songs.
Lammin will conduct, and Birkenhead’s head of music, Chris Watson, will accompany the ensemble on guitar.
The concert will be held at the high school auditorium at 7 p.m. It is free and open to the public.