Classroom of the Week | Another high note for Taconic choirs: Students earn top scores at Music in the Parks festival

PITTSFIELD — As "Classroom of the Week" comes to a conclusion for the end of the school year, we decided a multiple-time nominee deserved some recognition for their year-end success.

The chorus groups of Taconic High School, under the direction of Jessica Passetto, hit a high note at April's "Music in the Parks" festival in Hershey, Pa., taking home four top prizes across the performances of mixed choirs, Renaissance choirs and soloists. About 30 students participated in the program.

Taconic competed with 12 other schools from Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Virginia, and took home the following awards: first place with a superior rating in the mixed choir category; first place with a superior rating in the Renaissance choir category; best soloist for tenor Kyle Stasiewski, and the Taconic Renaissance Choir was ranked best overall, among all the different groups and categories. This marked the first time for Taconic winning a best overall rank in the history of the chorus, Passetto said.

"It's very mind-blowing," said Cali Cybulski, a rising junior.

"We come from a small city that you would never know," she said. "The sports industry is so big with awards and competitions, but the musical and theatrical industry is still not as recognized for student achievements."

Taconic offers an intensive, honors and Renaissance chorus programs, which include both in school and out-of-school rehearsals, along with various community performances and school concerts.

While Stasiewski joined the chorus groups as a freshman, rising senior Mitchell Strack joined this year after participating in last year's school musical, "Sister Act."

Being in the chorus classes, "Really just improved everything I've been doing and just made me a better performer overall," he said. This year, he performed a solo, "Miracle of Miracles," while portraying Motel, the tailor, in the school's production of "Fiddler on the Roof."

He also got a chance to participate in the state's Western District music festival auditions. He did so well, he was one of four Taconic students that went on to participate in the All-State Festival and Concert.

Asked why he thought this year's group of chorus students found so much success, Strack said, "I'm not sure if there's one thing. We all spend a lot of time together as friends and as classmates. There's no tension between anyone and no fights. ... That friendship we have makes everything we do so much better."

Prior to the Music in the Parks festival, the groups had intensive rehearsals for some three months prior.

On April 26, Stasiewski said the group boarded a coach bus at 5:30 in the morning to head to Lancaster, Pa. The group had some time to explore Amish Country before heading to the The Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre to take in a performance of the musical, "Showboat." Their tour continued on Friday, concluding with an in-home dinner hosted by Rachel King and her family, which Passetto called "one of the most amazing evenings." The students gave their gratitude to their hosts by performing an after-dinner serenade.

The group was well fed and well-prepared come their Saturday morning performance time. The mixed choir performed two selections, "Keep Your Lamps" and "Girl" — all a cappella — while the Renaissance group performed the madrigals "Sweet Day" and "Silver Swan."

Strack called the madrigals, "two of the hardest songs I've ever had to sing."

But, said Stasiewski, "We felt really, really good."

The judges returned the mixed choir (which includes the four vocal parts of soprano, alto, tenor and bass) a top score of 94.5, after taking into consideration their tone quality, intonation, diction and pronunciation, note accuracy and rhythmic precision, and overall musicality of the performance. The Renaissance Choir earned a top score of 97 out of 100, within the same scoring categories.

After performing, the Taconic groups got some free time and a picnic lunch in Hershey Park while they waited for the other schools to perform and be scored. They all came together in the evening for an awards ceremony.

The Taconic group, seated together in the same section, started screaming when they heard their scores and were invited to pick up their trophies. "We were all so happy we didn't hear what was going on after," Stasiewski said.

She said overall the opportunity was, "a great learning experience, and it was great to have the judges reactions back and how it's helped us" become better.

"It's definitely fun as well," she said.

Passetto and the chorus were nominated as a Classroom of the Week a few times last year, and again this year by regional music man and fund raiser Tom McCusker. To participate in Music in the Parks, the chorus members had to do their own fundraising to travel and participate in the program.

McCusker said he gives a lot of credit to music education these days, saying, "Teachers all across this country are feeling the pinch, even more now with the continued pressure to cut costs wherever they can be cut. Educators are having to take on many roles outside of the classroom, and this is no different."

He continued, saying of Passetto, "Jess is one of those music educators that is as passionate about her subject matter as she is about her students. She instills in her students not only a sense of team, community, caring, and passion!"

McCusker said the students and their teacher do all that they do with smiles on their faces and a high-quality manner of professionalism and performance.

He said of Passetto, "She brings out what each student is capable of doing, even when that student doesn't realize they CAN do something great!"


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