Herberg Middle School concert celebrates sounds of Latin America

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PITTSFIELD — For their last musical concert of the school year, the Herberg Middle School choral students have been preparing a piece for which the only lyrics are "La La Oh." The other directions are also little more atypical of what these young performers are used to. Instead of focusing on the words of a refrain, they've had to learn to clap out rhythms to a samba-style beat, and have been invited to move their bodies and feet accordingly.

At 7 p.m. on Thursday, the school's chorus and band students will take the stage with professional musicians to debut "A Journey into Latin America Through Music." This will be a free, public performance in the Herberg auditorium.

Herberg Instrumental Music Director Chris Nelson-Unczur said that for the past four months, the band and chorus students have been meeting with three local artists: guitarist Jason Ennis and vocalist Natalia Bernal, both of the international musical group La Voz de Tres, and composer and arranger Joseph "Joe"      Smith, whose credits range from working at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music to working on orchestrating scores for the "Star Trek" franchise.

"We all just happen to live in the same neighborhood ... right here in Pittsfield," said Smith of the collaborators.

The musical guests worked with the students to explain to them the histories of the various Latin American styles of music. They also had to remind the middle schoolers that these styles aren't demure, but are meant to be played boldly.

"I remember watching one kid during rehearsal, then afterward I picked up a drum stick and said, 'That was good, but I want you to play like this,'" Smith said imitating a big pounding motion. "His eyes lit up and he nodded, OK. OK."

After hearing the band and choral students perform over the course of several morning rehearsal periods, Smith then arranged a musical selection for each group — "La La Oh" from the La Voz de Tres repertoire for the concert chorus, and "Caravanaros," using orchestration from the Andean tradition, for the concert band. Each piece will include parts performed by various guest musicians alongside the students.

"I think it's pretty cool to do stuff like this," said sixth-grade clarinetist Cassie Morano. "It's a really new piece," she said of the special arrangement.

"The fact that we're able to work with the people who wrote it is amazing," Tyler Vosburgh, an eighth-grade percussionist, said.

Other guests artists included the third member of La Voz de Tres, Grammy-nominated pianist Michael Eckroth, and Argentinian percussionist Marcelo Woloski.

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This school-community collaboration has been supported, in part, by a grant from the Pittsfield Cultural Council supported through the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Guardian Life Insurance, the Herberg Middle School PAC and the Families of the Concert Band and Concert Chorus.

During a May 13 rehearsal, eighth-grade chorus members Amber White and Ethan Stapleton readily clapped their hands and moved their sneakered feet while standing at the back of the class.

Earlier this year, the chorus sang songs from the film, "The Greatest Showman," and other popular tunes, but Stapleton said he liked being co-taught by the guest artists in collaboration with their teacher, Gaylan Palmer.

"I think this is better. I think I've learned more in this class than working on other styles of music in the past," he said.

"It takes a lot of concentration," said White.

"I think having different teachers who have different interests can show you different perspectives," Stapleton added.

Nelson-Unczur said, "I think this [project] is one of those things that years down the road, these students are going to have one of those moments when they look back and say, "That was really cool." I don't think they fully comprehend that they're the only people on the planet that have this piece of music right now."

Smith and Ennis said they've been thrilled to see the middle school students embracing these new dynamics.

Said Smith, "I think our goal is to get them to be not self-conscious and to get outside themselves and be louder. That will make a huge difference in their musical performance. Both Chris and Gaylan have done a great job prepping them."

"The fun thing about doing this are the challenges," said Ennis. "These musical styles are new for the students and we're finding a way, for example, to do samba for the choir and not have it be too overwhelming for them, but at the same time stay true to the style and keep it interesting. And they've got it."


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