Constable: Pandemic can't silence voices yearning to be free

  • Commissioned to compose music for a Vernon Hills High School project to focus on non-dominant voices throughout American history, professional composer Lee Kesselman rehearses the choir and orchestra.

    Commissioned to compose music for a Vernon Hills High School project to focus on non-dominant voices throughout American history, professional composer Lee Kesselman rehearses the choir and orchestra. Courtesy of Vernon Hills High School

  • When the pandemic canceled a groundbreaking performance melding Vernon Hills High School history students with the choir and orchestra, choir director Jeremy Little didn't quit. He and the other teachers worked with students to put some of their show online.

    When the pandemic canceled a groundbreaking performance melding Vernon Hills High School history students with the choir and orchestra, choir director Jeremy Little didn't quit. He and the other teachers worked with students to put some of their show online. Courtesy of Vernon Hills High School

  • Vernon Hills High School American Studies teachers Siobhan Szabo left, and Amanda Carroll explain how staff and students regrouped this year after the pandemic canceled last year's performance created by their students, the choir and the orchestra.

    Vernon Hills High School American Studies teachers Siobhan Szabo left, and Amanda Carroll explain how staff and students regrouped this year after the pandemic canceled last year's performance created by their students, the choir and the orchestra. Courtesy of Vernon Hills High School

  • Commissioned to compose music for a Vernon Hills High School project to focus on non-dominant voices throughout American history, professional composer Lee Kesselman turned poetry and other words into choral numbers.

    Commissioned to compose music for a Vernon Hills High School project to focus on non-dominant voices throughout American history, professional composer Lee Kesselman turned poetry and other words into choral numbers. Courtesy of Vernon Hills High School

 
 
Updated 4/3/2021 5:07 PM

More than 180 students in choir, orchestra and American Studies at Vernon Hills High School spent the entire 2019-20 school year working with teachers on a massive project to bring often-unheard voices of history to the forefront in a multimedia presentation, including a world-premiere musical performance titled "Remember Us."

In the cruelest of ironies, days before the show was set to go on March 18, 2020, the pandemic swooped in to silence them.

 

"OK," thought Aditi Ram, then a junior choir member who had written a poem with a student partner in honor of Phillis Wheatley, an 18th-century poet and the first African American poet to be published. "Three weeks off. In April, we'll move the date."

Instead, concerts, plays, sports, graduations, proms and everything else associated with high school springs vanished.

"I was excited to bring family to see what we had done," says Kelly Fagel, another junior choir member who choreographed a dance with her student partner to honor the lives of people killed in the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. "I remember sitting in choir on what we knew was going to be the last day of school."

The school year finished with virtual learning. Seniors graduated, and time moved on.

But Jeremy Little, the school's choir director; American Studies teachers Amanda Carroll and Siobhan Szabo; Dana Green, the orchestra director; Heidi Johnson, the collaborative accompanist; and professional composer Lee Kesselman didn't give up on the project. Learning how to bring non-dominant voices into a history lesson wasn't just a school assignment -- it shaped what they would do next.

They used computer software that let students record from home and worked to blend their singing, instruments and speaking together in a complicated process that Little compared to coaching a basketball team where the players performed from home. But the result is stunning.

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Spencer Lane, a Vernon Hills resident and parent of a Vernon Hills High School choir student, speaks to the choir about disenfranchised Black voices in American history.
Spencer Lane, a Vernon Hills resident and parent of a Vernon Hills High School choir student, speaks to the choir about disenfranchised Black voices in American history. - Courtesy of Vernon Hills High School

Videos available on Jeremy Little's YouTube account show performances of the poems "Undocumented Joy" and "Let America Be America Again." Additional videos titled "Planning a Commission" and "Student Projects" give a glimpse into the thousands of hours of work that went into this project.

"It was hard not having something to close the book on our senior year and our senior year choir experience," says Sari Gluck, now an 18-year-old freshman biology major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But Little included her by adding last year's rehearsal recording of her solo in "Undocumented Joy" to the background of one of the behind-the-scenes videos.

"It spread such a positive message," Gluck says, noting how rewarding it was to learn about the hardships and obstacles people overcame centuries ago and are still overcoming today.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It was interesting to shift my lens," says Fagel, now a senior. "Just listening. Not trying to step into people's shoes, but just listening."

Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again" and other poems give voice to Black people, Indigenous people, poor white folks, immigrants and the downtrodden, and fueled discussions and music in the mostly white, middle-class school where most kids go on to college. So did literary works by Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Yosimar Reyes, 32, who identifies as queer and wrote the poem "Undocumented Joy," for which Kesselman wrote a song.

Reyes' line "I wish you would ask of the memories" could be a mantra for the project, Little says.

Vernon Hills High School students in choir, orchestra and American Studies met throughout the year to discuss Langston Hughes' famous poem, "Let America Be America Again."
Vernon Hills High School students in choir, orchestra and American Studies met throughout the year to discuss Langston Hughes' famous poem, "Let America Be America Again." - Courtesy of Vernon Hills High School

Commissioned through grants from Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128, CAST (the Cougar Arts Support Team), and choir and orchestra funds, composer Kesselman wrote 11 songs for this project.

"I read the poems, I read them out loud. I write them out. I live with them for a while until the musical ideas come," Kesselman said during one of his many meetings at the school with students.

"I don't know how to say it without sounding corny, but we learn best when we learn with each other," Little says, noting how singers read poems and essays, and history students learned how music could help tell their stories. Carroll says she and Little often talked about how "someday we're going to do something where our two classes are working together," and they weren't going to let this opportunity slip by.

"This is how they are created. This is why they are created," Carroll told history students who watched the process of music being created.

"It was a nice closure, albeit a little less than what we needed," says Ram, who will study computer science and film next year at Northwestern University. "We have two songs now we can take with us."

Of course, they'll take more than that from the experience.

"I'm always offended when people say there has been 'learning loss,'" Carroll says of a common pandemic response to e-learning. "Learning is taking place, and a community is being built."

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