A Conversation About Music In The Schools: From Rome Free Academy to Motown and Manilow

When thinking of music in schools, one would assume it’s only an extracurricular activity.  Rome Free Academy (RFA) believes differently.  To them,  it’s a career path and the students who participate in the music programs are nurtured and prepared accordingly.

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An article published July 21, 2015 in National Association for Music Education, establishes that students who participate in musical programs in school, benefit cognitively.  The article makes a strong case for continuing music in schools, citing the benefits of music beyond not only keeping but expanding these musical programs. Advantages to students include:

•    Helping develop language and reasoning as it uses the same side of brain used to process music.
•    Improving memorization as musicians are constantly memorizing songs to perform.
•    Improved hand/eye coordination.
•    Heightened sense of achievement when they are able to accomplish simple to challenging pieces.
•    More engaged students in both studies and outside activities.
•    Improved social skills. Music piques a curiosity that filters into other subjects as well.
•    Greater emotional development – Music helps to alleviate stress and promotes a higher self esteem in students.
•    Improved pattern recognition through the repetitiveness of music.
•    Higher SAT Scores – Students in music programs average 63 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on math scores.
•    Improved auditory skills are developed through music. Most musicians can play by ear.
•    Heightened imagination and intellectual curiosity is developed in the brain for those who participate in music.
•    Heightened relaxation is accomplished.  Where the term “music calms the beast” derives.
•    Greater discipline skills. Musicians are required to participate in hours of self practice as well as group practice.
•    Greater creative economical reasoning.  Musicians become more creative in bringing music to their audiences with limited budgets.
•    Greater spatial intelligence as the brain develops
•    Greater responsible risk taking occurs as musicians begin to play in front of an audience.  The ability to overcome fears and anxieties in life tends to lead them to better and more confident choices.
•    Greater self confidence occurs as they achieve their goals and perform in front of friends, family, and peers.

NYS Music had an opportunity to talk with a local high school music educator at Rome Free Academy about past students, current students, and musical opportunities for the students in their future.

Kathy Stockbridge: Hi Michelle, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with our readers. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Michelle, she is a music teacher at the Rome Free Academy (RFA). Can you give our readers a little background on you and your experience in the music field?

Michelle Rushford: I grew up in the Rome City School District. I played clarinet in the band/marching band and sang in choir throughout my years in the Rome City School District. I graduated from RFA in 1986, and went on to Crane School of Music SUNY Potsdam to major in Music Education with a concentration in voice. I graduated from Crane in December of 1990, and began teaching at St. Peter’s Elementary School. After 1 ½ years at St. Peter’s, I began teaching in the Rome City School District at Stokes Elementary. I taught at Stokes for 13 years, Staley Middle School for 2 years, and finally, I have been at RFA for 8 years now.

During my time at Stokes, I had a private voice, guitar and piano studio with 17 students. I performed in many musical plays, and was the vocal director for several high school musicals, as well as clarinet player for the pit orchestra. I began singing, as the lead vocalist for the band The Dominoes in 1990 and have performed as lead vocalist in many other cover bands for approximately 22 years. The most recent band that I performed with was Classified. Classified is a well-known local 12-piece horn band who is inducted into the Rome Arts Hall of Fame, and has opened up for many famous bands, including KC and the Sunshine Band, The Temptations, and Earth Wind and Fire to name only a few.

KS: You bring so much experience to the students at RFA, and the RFA Music Program is one of several in the Rome School District.  These programs have always been supported whole-heartedly in the district. Talk to us a little about the philosophy of music in our school district and how it plays a critical role for students. How does RFA’s program stand out?

MR: Music is the universal language. Musical involvement improves a student’s self-discipline, dexterity, coordination, self-esteem, thinking skills, listening skills, creative abilities, cooperation, teamwork and personal expression. At RFA we provide many options to students interested in music. There are two choirs, orchestras, and bands along with other curricular music classes. There should be more to come soon as well, as we are working on adding some new music classes to the curriculum. There are also many extra-curricular activities for the students to choose from (auditioned choir groups, band and string clubs).

KS: We have had several students go on to study music further, whether it’s professionally, teaching, music therapy, etc… How does RFA play a part in their preparation for careers in the music field?

MR: There are so many opportunities and classes that our students get to take and experience that will definitely play a part in their future, whether it be music or something else. I tell my music students, don’t choose to pursue music as a career, that they can still go on to music in their lives as they can always sing in a band, or sing at a local event, or restaurant.

KS: Talk to our readers a little about the competitive process in NYSSMA (New York State School for Music Association) and the levels and what each mean. This is a huge achievement for our students.

MR: There are two parts to NYSSMA, Solo Festival and Major Organization. Major Organization is for an entire ensemble, where they perform three pieces of music and are adjudicated by two professional NYSSMA judges. There are levels I-VI with VI being the most difficult in both majors and solos. I do level VI with Concert Choir which is very difficult for a mixed ability group. But we always get it done, and get a good grade as well. Concert Choir has received from Silver Rating to Gold with Distinction (Ratings – Bronze, Silver, Gold, Gold with Distinction) rating over the past 7 years.

Solos are just one person and they are actually auditioning for  Area All-State (best in four counties) and All-State (best in the state) ensembles. If a student makes an All-State ensemble, they are then eligible to participate in All-Eastern and All-National Honors Ensembles. My Concert Choir students audition with level VI solos and I have between 12 and 25 students participate per year.

KS: You have traveled all over the country performing and competing. How does this come about for our school?

MR: I search and search the internet for performance and competition options, then decide if I think we can fundraise enough to take the trip and then go from there. Some of the places our students have performed are the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Carnegie Hall, Europe, and many more. I make it a point to have my students perform at as many places as possible.

KS: I may be a little biased here with your program as my son Zach is a member of your A Capella Choir as well as the Select Choir at RFA. You will be traveling soon to Virginia to compete? Can you tell us a little about that upcoming event?

MR: We will be competing in the SINGSTRONG DC High School A Capella Competition on April 2. The group will perform at 8:30 that morning, and then the top eight groups will compete in the finals at 2:00 pm that same day. This is their first competition so we are kind of nervous and excited at the same time. The rest of the weekend will be concerts, vocal classes and workshops. The headliner this year is Take 6.

KS: As most already know as we are all so very excited, your current A Capella Group, Fermata Nowhere, will be performing March 18 with Barry Manilow at the Turning Stone Event Center. How exciting this is? Can you share how this came about?

MR: Yes, we are all so excited. What an amazing opportunity for these students. I am so happy that they will get to experience something so incredible. One of Barry Manilow’s production managers called RFA, as he had heard there was an A Capella group. I couldn’t believe it. “No Way, Barry Manilow?” I told him I would ask the group and get back to him. I called him the next day after dicussing it with the kids, and it was set.

KS: We are so excited for the students and hope to be able to bring our readers highlights from that show. There is also another student, Quiana Holmes who graduated from RFA in 2014, I believe, who has had some amazing success already in her young career.  She is currently touring with the production of Dancing In The Streets, Motown’s Greatest Hits. Talk to us a little about Quiana and students like her that have gone on to live their dreams.

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MR: Quiana was an amazing musician.  I recognized her talent immediately when I was teaching at Staley. As soon as I heard her sing back in 5th grade, I told her parents to get her to a studio to do some recording. I had the pleasure of working with Quiana at RFA as well when I transferred at the same time she entered high school.  She was a part of many performing groups at RFA, and I was elated to find out that she wanted to pursue a career in music. I tell all of my students to follow their dreams and shoot for the stars, no matter how far they are. I am so proud of Quiana for following her dreams and making them come true; and I am just as proud of all of my students whether they decide to pursue music or not.

KS: I can’t say enough how awesome the music programs at our schools are here in Rome. As districts try to slash budgets, the arts are generally one thing that tends to be reviewed (eliminated) first. If you had to give advice to other school districts across the country as to the importance of these programs, what advice would you give?

MR: Advocate for your program! Get your students performing publicly in as many places as possible. Contact the local newspapers and TV channels. The more the district’s administrators and the community see the students, the better chance you will have of keeping music in your schools.

KS: For anyone interested in helping the program out or attending the remainder of the shows for the school year, how and where would they go?

MR: Most of our upcoming concerts are on the district calendar on the district website, www.romecsd.org Anyone interested in helping out our program, could contact me at mrushford@romecsd.org

The passion Michelle Rushford and all the musical educators at the Rome City School District is contagious. It spreads among the students, their parents, and the entire community.  Having a student in the district that has been part of the music program, I can attest to the fact that every concert is performed to a sold out venue, consisting of not only parents and students, but also community members who just enjoy wonderful music.

Recently, another special RFA student entered the spotlight as she ventured out into the world after high school. Quiana Holmes is one of those students who has definitely reached for the stars, and the sparkle Michelle saw as a fifth grade student shines even brighter today as she is now touring with the musical production Dancing In The Streets, scheduled to perform here in Syracuse at the Crouse Hinds Theater at the Oncenter, on April 12. Quiana took a moment while on the road to say hello to NYS Music and share a little of this dream come true experience with us.

Kathy: Hi Quiana.  Thank you so much for talking with NYS Music. I am very excited to introduce you to my readers. For those that don’t know you, tell us a little about your background in music and what you love most about it.

Quiana Holmes: Thank you.  Well I’ve been in music my whole life. Most of my family is musical.  I grew up with it in church, and that’s really how it started.  My mom being the choir director and putting on plays in my church, she would always have me star in her plays and singing in the choir, so that is how I really began music, in my church. What I love most about it is that is where I feel most at home, and brought me back to my roots.  That connection with music is because that is where I grew up and where it began. That is where I am most comfortable.

KS: Did you always know you wanted to pursue music as a career or was this something that developed over time?

QH: Growing up, we were told that music didn’t offer a lot of jobs in the music field.  So that obviously deterred me. My decision in music was difficult as I wanted to be stable, so because i loved science as well, I thought maybe I would pursue that area of study instead, until my senior year.  At that time I looked at all my extra curricular activities and that is when I realized that I do not have any activities I do with science, instead everything I do was music; choir, musicals, Rhapsody, and show choir.  Everything was music. So I decided to leave all that negativity behind and said I am going to do what I love, and I am going to study music.

KS: I admire your spunk and determination. While in school, was there a specific teacher who nurtured your love of music or a moment in school that helped you to know this was your destiny?

QH: It wasn’t just one teacher.  I’m so lucky to be able to say that.  It began with my piano teacher, and I began piano lessons in middle school.  Her name was Nina Merrill. She nurtured me in learning the theory of music.  She taught me note placement on keyboard, reading music, things like that.   Then when I got to RFA, I was lucky enough to have four wonderful teachers; Twyla Edwards, Michelle Rushford, Mary Kay Madonia, and Jake Meiss. Yes, I was lucky to get to work with all of them. Twyla Edwards, I worked with for jazz voice and select choir. Michelle Rushford, I worked with for combo choir in which we would all get together for NYSSMA and learn the classical style of things. I had Mary Kay Madonia for orchestra because I played violin; and finally Jake Meiss for all of the musicals, marching band, and show choir. So I was able to work with all of them and they are all so great to me and told me, “Listen, no matter what you decide you belong here,” because they really wanted me to go on with this.  At that time I was going to keep to my original plan of being a forensic scientist and make sure I’m able to make a living.  They kept telling me, “Look Quiana, you have a gift. You need to hone your gift and pursue this.” So, I have all of them to thank for getting me started with this.

KS: Tell us a little about the college decision you made? Did you always want to study at Berklee?

QH: So my senior year I was very stressed about this decision.  I didn’t know what I was doing and the decision had to be made.  So I was looking at Potsdam, Fredonia, Ithaca, and Eastman.  But there was something about Berklee. And it’s not because those schools aren’t great, but I am an R&B singer, and a pop singer, and I didn’t want to go to a school that would focus me on only classical music because I would be losing out on a lot of the abilities I have. So I decided on Berklee because it allowed me musical theater. It allowed me jazz, classical, any of other genres you can think of.  Berklee is in a big city, and that’s where I wanted to be, as I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and step into a new place. So Berklee was the perfect place for me.

KS: The Wiz. Talk to us a little about how that came about and the experience of performing in that production.

QH: So I was in my dorm room practicing for my proficiency; doing my homework for the day, and my friend texted me, “Quiana are you trying out for the Wiz?” I hadn’t heard anything about this.  So he said, “Quiana, you have to get right down here because they are going to stop auditions in two hours.” I thought, “What? Okay, this is a big deal,” and thank God I had been rehearsing “Home,” which is in the show, for my proficiency exam so I had already known that song.  I literally threw on some clothes, ran out of my dorm room, and got a cab down to The Strand Theater, which is in Dorchester, MA.  When I arrived, no one was there, it almost looked liked they had closed up auditions, and I asked, “Please can I audition?” and they allowed me to. I sang “Home.” They had me do some readings, and this was my first professional audition, so it was so very exciting.

KS:  Well you obviously nailed it, as you ended up with the lead, so congratulations!  Talk to us a little about Dancing In The Streets, Motown’s Greatest Hits. How did you learn about the show? Audition? Learning about receiving the part? School? I understand that your focus is still to return to school after this semester off and complete your degree?

QH: So I found out about the audition through “Backstage.”  That is normally what I do to see which auditions are around me.  And it’s funny because I end up finding out about my auditions really late for some reason.  For this one I realized that Dancing In The Streets auditions are tomorrow so I have to get to Philly.  So I told all my professors I was sorry I wasn’t going to be in class tomorrow because I was going to audition for this show, handed in all my homework, and off I went to Philly to audition.

A few days later, I heard from them that they wanted me to tour with them. This show was originally produced in the UK, and they are coming over to Canada and America to test out their running show to see how it does in the States. So we are basically their first cast in America.

This show actually has nothing to do with Motown the musical.  It’s a very different show.  It’s more of a concert.  I am playing young Diana Ross, so I am singing a lot of the Supremes.  You’ll be hearing a lot of Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, and Martha and the Vandellas,  that kind of thing.  And it’s been so cool so far. We just returned to the States today, and the cast is wonderful.  There are seven of us, and a wonderful band, and so far it’s been amazing, and I’m so excited for my family and friends to see.

KS:  Yes, you will be playing in Syracuse at the Oncenter on April 12.  We are excited to see you and I’m hoping to be able to cover the show to share with my readers.

In closing, you are the perfect example of nurturing students in school to pursue their passion.  If you had a moment to sit down and talk with local school superintendents who have to trim budgets, what would you tell them about why they should keep the music programs?

QH: What I would tell them is this: We don’t want any child feeling that they aren’t good at something.  Everyone is great at something.  Some people are meant to be doctors, scientists, or lawyers, whereas others feel at home in the arts.  By telling a child that they can’t do that, they are stifling that child and leaving them out of the same opportunities as those going into other non-arts related fields.  Telling a child they can’t do something that they love can ultimately be damaging to a child.  For anyone who told me I shouldn’t go this route, I did feel a little left out. Why can’t I?  Growing up, everyone tells us we can be anything we want to be.  It’s contradicting when you say you want to be a musician and they say, “You can’t do that.”  It’s not fair, and it’s heart breaking. So we have to be the ones to raise the children up to say you can do anything you want to do.  And if you love music, then go for it. If you love art, then go for it.  If you want to be a doctor, go for it.

KS:  Well you are a wonderful role model for all that want to pursue music.  We are so happy for your success, and we know this is just the beginning for you.

Music has a silent greatness to it.  Its ability to pacify anger, express emotions, tell stories, communicate beyond language barriers, and fit every person personally like a custom made piece, transcends quietly with a strength never given enough credit.

In a setting where millions of people need ways to express their individualism, music is key to doing so.  In a career field that is finding its way back to listeners in new and inventive ways, these students need to nurture their passions just as much as those taking math and science courses.  Not everyone is cut from the same cloth, however this bolt of fabric known as music somehow magically fits many.

Please support music education in your communities, your local musicians, and venues. Today’s students are tomorrow’s superstars. You never know if those students you see performing on the high school stage may one day be back up singers for Barry Manilow at Turning Stone or starring in a traveling Motown production as a young Diana Ross.

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