A different song: A thank you to Rutland Public Schools

Albert J. Marro / Staff Photo Rutland High School music teacher Dan Graves, left, leads the chorus in ``The Battle Hymn of the Republic" during Tuesday's Veterans day Ceremony in Rutland Legion Post 31 clubrooms.  111/11/14

Albert J. Marro / Staff Photo
Rutland High School music teacher Dan Graves, left, leads the chorus in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” during Tuesday’s Veterans day Ceremony in Rutland Legion Post 31 clubrooms. 111/11/14

By Joanna Tebbs Young
Circles of Community
A few weeks ago I attended my daughter’s choral concert in the Rutland Intermediate School auditorium. Various groups performed, including the 7th and 8th grade choruses, the RHS Advanced Orchestra, four smaller ensembles — the RHS Chorale, an all-female choir called the Unpredictables, an all-male choir called the Malestroms, and the RHS Chamber Singers — and finally the high school’s full chorus. The title was “Choral Concert of International Songs” with pieces from the British Isles, South Africa, Japan, Korea, Italy, the U.S., Slovenia, Czechoslovakia, the Caribbean and India.

This last one, performed by the full high school choir and conducted by Dan Graves, was particularly impressive and serenely beautiful, with its distinct musical scale, and sounding in the first few lines like the overtones sung by Tibetan throat singers.

Each choir, regardless of their age, exhibited a level of ability I don’t usually associate with high school choirs. Singing in harmony, even in the middle-school grades, I heard very few wonky notes or out-of-tune singers. (In fact, the only noticeable distraction with the younger students was the obvious discomfort of some, the awkwardness with which they stood, and the pained, or bored, looks on their faces. But that must be forgiven when we are talking about 12, 13 and 14 year olds. In middle-school everything feels awkward and painful.)

Regarding the decision to teach international music, Marc Whitman, 7th grade choral teacher, explains that “an unfamiliar language can help us shed our culturally bound conventions of vowel sounds for a more musically beautiful vowel sound, because we don’t know what it’s ‘supposed’ to sound like.” But beyond that, another reason to teach music from different cultures, he believes, is to gain new perspective.

Whitman’s goal, he says, is to help the students through the music experience things from a new perspective in a non-threatening way. “And I aim to make that as positive an experience as I can.”
With this music, he says, “we’ve taken the chance and stepped outside our comfortable sphere, and so added dimensions to our perspective. Even within our own community there are myriad different perspectives.”

And it is this last point of Whitman’s, beyond the diversity of the music, that struck me at this concert.
It seems every day on social media stories where perceptions of “difference,” “weirdness,” “nonconformity,” i.e. “otherness,” result in ridicule, bullying, ostracizing, and far worse. We hear of students getting kicked out of school for “inappropriate” or “distracting” clothing, girls denied the right to wear a tuxedo to their proms, and children disciplined for their choice of hairstyle. (For example, a nine year old in Colorado who shaved her head in support of her cancer-stricken friend, and a California kindergartner who had what I think is a perfectly adorable haircut called a Fade were both sent home for violating their schools’ dress codes.)

As a mother attempting to foster confidence and individuality in my own “awkward-stage” middle-school daughter who is struggling to define herself in a culture that prefers sameness, stories like this worry and anger me. It seems to me compassion and common sense are negated in strict adherence to often out-dated (and sexist) mindsets.

So, at this Rutland Public Schools concert I was beyond pleased to see, to quote Whitman again, “myriad different perspectives” celebrated on the stage. OK, maybe not a “myriad,” but enough examples of distinct individuality to show my daughter that being “different” doesn’t necessarily equate with “wrong.”

One young lady, although wearing the required choral black and white, was dressed in a fun and funky outfit which included a full retro-looking skirt worn over pants. Another girl, otherwise dressed like the rest of her ensemble in a formal black dress, stood out with her bright green hair. One high-school student had a great non-symmetrical haircut, and a talented female soloist, matching her male counterpart, wore a tux. Others danced and rocked and mimed as they saw fit. It was a joy to watch.

As a choral singer myself, I understand there are times when blending in is the appropriate thing to do — you wear the required colors or choir robe so, like the music you are singing, each singer becomes a non-distinct, but necessary part of a whole; a note in a symphony, a leaf on a tree, a drop of water in a river. But also like each of those individual singers, that note, that leaf, that drop of water, when looked at individually, we are, and should be, perfectly imperfect and distinctly unique.

I applauded the night of the concert — for the choice of music and the talents of the directors and the kids. But above all I applauded for the message that it’s OK to step out and beyond what may be considered the norm, whether it’s the music we’re accustomed to hearing, singing, and playing, or the way we think is appropriate to dress or look (or speak or act or worship or love).

I know the choral concert was just a tiny snippet of what goes on in our school system, and not being a part of it other than as a parent, I do not know the day-to-day culture there. But knowing the story of RHS students being part of Apple’s decision a couple of years ago to take down “After School,” an iPhone application associated with cyber-bullying, I am guessing what I witnessed at the concert is an indication that we have a good school here, one that celebrates, not suppresses or punishes, individuality and diversity.