Bach to School

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As an elementary school student, I remember when a dozen instrumentalists from the local orchestra visited to present an assembly.   God bless them, they were probably volunteering their time, and their dedication to musical forms not commonly heard in the households of the students was touching.  But, there was also a faint whiff of apology to their “Aw shucks, classical music can be fun, too” vibe, as though they didn’t entirely believe it themselves.  I recall that the most engaging moment in the presentation was when they played an arrangement of “The Entertainer,” sending the unintended message that ragtime as a precursor to jazz sounds lovely on classical instruments (quite true, no doubt).  If it seems that I’m being hard on these kind souls, that’s not my intention.  I hope to underline how perilously difficult it is to effectively introduce music that remains largely outside the zeitgeist of our youth today to students who may not be in the mood for such an introduction. 

My first experience of the Bach Choir, and Bach’s choral music, was sort of the opposite of that timid introduction.  At a Muskifest concert, 100 singers and 40 players loaded both metaphorical barrels, and BLAM: the Sanctus from the Mass in B-Minor.  It’s no exaggeration to say that it was a life-changing experience.  Many of us who love this music had cathartic epiphanies in our first exposure to it in a live setting, but I suspect that, for many of us, circumstances were just right, and we were likely primed for the experience.  Bach was already my favorite composer, but it had been his keyboard music that beguiled me. I was so excited,  I didn’t sleep well the night before the concert.  I was sure I’d like the music, but I had no idea what I was in for.   I fell in love, to be sure, but maybe I’m an outlier!

Imagine my delight, then, when I volunteered for my first experience singing at a Bach to School program.  The children are exposed to an hour of wonderful music with a variety of colors and textures.  Their experience begins as they assemble in the auditorium.  Greg Funfgeld works the crowd like a seasoned pro, introducing himself to the students with a hand shake and considerable charm as they’re seated.  After a few words of introduction, the Choir, usually around 30-40 volunteers, many of whom take the day off from work to do these programs, bursts into the “Alles was odem” fugue of the great motet, Singet dem Herrn.  Then follows a performance of the first two movements of the Gloria from the Mass in B-Minor, but not without ample introduction.  Greg deconstructs the instrumental and vocal parts, and Larry Wright, our phenomenal principal trumpeter gives an engaging introduction to the instruments of the orchestra.  The students are given something to listen for in the music, and they universally respond with respectful and attentive listening.  We bring a small ensemble of players from the Bach Festival Orchestra, usually one on a part strings, and some of the winds, trumpets, and timpani.  For many of the children, this is their first experience of the choral/orchestral canon, and we proudly make that introduction with very high quality.  That variety of moods I mentioned includes a lovely oboe solo offered by Nobuo Kitagawa, which always leaves the children (and performers) in stunned silence.  We offer a stately performance of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, which the children usually recognize, and a zesty Ward Swingle arrangement of Sleepers, Wake.  Robin Kani, our principal flute, offers a movement of a flute sonata (slow, faster, fastest – wowing everyone with her virtuosity), accompanied by Greg, and Debbie Davis, our fabulous cellist, and after a Q&A (which often includes insightful, and sometimes just, plain hilarious questions), we sing the concluding movement of a chorale cantata, completely with trumpets and drums.  The program is fantastically paced, and a lot of care, research, and input from educators went into its construction.  Our Kapellemeister always offers engaging and age-appropriate commentary, and makes the music, and equally importantly, the experience of listening to the music, delightfully approachable.  Lesson plans are made available to the students’ teachers prior to the experience, so they might be primed for the assembly.  Afterwards, students are given fliers that entitle them to tickets to our performances throughout the year.  This is done without equivocation, and with honesty about what the children might expect of us, and what we might expect of them.  Greg often mentions that there’s room in their musical lives for Bach, and encourages them to investigate further.  I’ve no doubt that some do, either through taking us up on the offer of tickets, or taking to the internet and YouTube.  Appetites are whetted, and, while not everyone’s life is changed by the experience, what matters to us is that we might open a door to appreciation or more of this music.

In the midst of all of our Young Meister Bach preparations, we offered two days of Bach to School assemblies, the week before last.  On the first day, a nasty ice storm commenced just as third graders in the Bethlehem School District were to bus to Broughal middle school.  The superintendent prudently halted the buses, and we ended up performing for the third graders of Marvine Elementary School, who had beaten the storm.  They were an excellent audience, even if they didn’t exactly fill the auditorium.  Performers then gingerly made our way to Catasauqua Middle School, where we performed for a full house of students of Kurt Anchorstar, a tenor in the choir.  They were enthusiastic and attentive, and the day, despite the logistical nightmares (the ice storm, the collapse of the dolly that transports our priceless Brunzema continuo organ), was a success.

We gathered the next day, “Bach” at Broughal, for a second day of assemblies, this time to a very full house (alas, the organ left one prong of its power cord in Catasauqua, so Bridget George quickly engaged an electrician to repair it before the first concert – never a dull moment, and no seemingly insurmountable logistical problem is big enough to trip her!).  The program was wonderful, and many of the students gave a warm ovation to their teachers, Wendy Borst and Ryan Morrow, both singers in the choir.  After the program, we made our way to Strayer Middle School in Quakertown for an visit that was the highlight of this year’s Bach to School runout.  The students had been exceptionally well prepared by their incredible teacher, Cynthia Teprovich.  We were greeted at the door by costumed students (including Bachian wigs), who offered us printed invitations to Zimmerman’s Coffee House (their choir room) for coffee and treats, following the performance.  We were also greeted with music – their chamber choir, Messa di Voce, offered lovely arrangements of Bist du bei mir, as well as an amusing arrangement of Bach Fugue themes.  Their tone was glorious, their singing obviously well-prepared, and hearing them as we arrived was very moving.  After an acoustical rehearsal, we began the program, and the audience was very excited, enthusiastic, attentive, and amusing.  They asked great questions, and, among them, I saw several students who were visibly touched by the music and the performance. One may reliably expect a variety of reactions, ranging from yawns to delight.  It’s so rewarding, then, to look out into the audience and see students experiencing some of the captivation that felt the first time I heard the Bach Choir. We enjoyed some treats, afterward, and returned to our busy lives, doubtlessly uplifted by the wonderful reception at Strayer.

Later in the afternoon of our first day of Bach to School performances, some of us attended the meeting of the Choir’s Board of Managers, and bass Jim Rowland reflected on the powerful nature of the experience of singing for the students from Marvine – perhaps the school in the Bethlehem School District that might benefit the most from such an experience.  A fair portion of the The Choir’s financial support from foundations, including the National Endowment for the Arts, is earmarked for our award-winning educational outreach programs, of which Bach to School plays such a large and important role.  I think the importance of this program is best summed up by Cynthia Teprovich, the wonderful teacher from Strayer Middle School, who kindly gave me permission to share her thanks to the organization on this blog:

Dear Greg, Bethlehem Bach Choir and Orchestra,

Thank you for giving of your time, talents, and treasure to educate young people. Yes– you, the members of the “Bach to School” choir and orchestra are a treasure.  You and I may never see the long term results that may happen in the student’s lives due to presenting your “Bach to School” program, but I can tell you about the short term results that have happen at R. E. Strayer Middle School since your presentation on February 20th that to me, are worth gold.

 First, the students were not coached to give you a spontaneous standing ovation, and further more we do not have regular assemblies. In fact this was the first multi-grade level assembly for our students this school year. The students recognized from their hearts that you truly deserved a standing ovation. I actually felt that energy from them as they spontaneously rose to their feet.  I am so proud of my students. Thank you for inspiring that in our young people’s hearts.

 Second, after summing it all up on Friday, all of the students agreed that hearing a live choir and a live orchestra is by far so much better that hearing the recording or even hearing it on You Tube. They were, in their own words, “moved emotionally.”

 Third, you inspired them to do some research via You Tube and Google, and they did it!  Bravo to Greg Funfgeld!   You’re going to love this one. An 8th grade girl decided to look up the meaning of “Funfgeld,” and she just could not wait to tell everyone in chorus class that she found it. The meaning she said is “five money.”  It was unanimous from the choral students and from their choral director that Greg is worth far more than five.

We experienced a historic musical-vortex that came down to Quakertown from Bethlehem. I am saying that it was historic because history was made in our auditorium, as Greg mentioned, when you performed the “Gloria” from Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I am so proud to be the choral director at Strayer when it happened.  And we successfully managed to schedule your outstanding inter-active performance between our historic polar-vortexes that we have been experiencing this winter.  Every teacher in the audience noticed the multiple uses of student engagement strategies that were successfully employed to make your presentation inter-active.  -Another bravo!

 The students received their cards for the 2 Free Tickets to a Bach Choir Concert. Thank you for providing that opportunity.  I look forward to seeing you all again this Saturday at the Young Meister Bach opera.  The newspaper review that hit our Sunday paper was outstanding. I cannot wait to see this opera. See you soon.

Most Sincerely,

Cynthia Teprovich

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