School named a Signature School semifinalist
Harrison High School Chior Director Lynn Fusco rehearses a music selection with her ninth-period chorus class. Photo by Matthew Brown/The Journal News.
On Feb. 10, the music world focuses on Los Angeles, and the 55th annual Grammy Awards.
Meanwhile, 2,800 miles away, from the bright lights and red carpet of the Staples Center, the staff and students at Harrison High School are already savoring their brush with the Grammy Awards: Harrison’s music program has been named a Grammy Signature School semifinalist, one of just 129 programs in the U.S. to be so honored by the Grammy Foundation.
Nominees include the school’s entire music program — the chorus, concert and marching bands, and string orchestra.
More than 20,000 schools applied for the Grammy Foundation’s designation, sending in paperwork detailing the training students receive, the commitment on the part of the district and community to maintain a vibrant music-education program, and the list of accolades the music program has earned.
In early December, Harrison learned it had made the cut, one of only 15 New York schools and the only one in the Lower Hudson Valley to be a semifinalist. Music teachers Fred Pasqua and Charles Briem (concert and marching bands), Lynn Fusco (choir), and Alanna Mackey (string orchestra) were invited to supplement their application with performance videos and more information that might bolster their case and make Harrison a finalist. Signature School finalists can earn grants ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.
The semifinalist schools will have to wait longer than Jay-Z and Mumford & Sons: The Grammy Foundation announces its finalists in mid-to-late March, says Grammy spokeswoman Chris Cassidy.
Staff and students say it’s an honor just to be nominated.
“Like any other competition or award, you want to be on the top of the heap,” says band director Pasqua, “but we’re thrilled to be where we are. It’s a very good heap, to be one of 129 schools out of 20,000.
“We could do concerts here until we’re blue in the face and go to all kinds of competitions and everyone would say ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ But when you say ‘Grammy,’ everyone knows what that is. That’s the difference.”
The distinction is good for the kids, Pasqua adds.
“We try to teach them the love of music and their intrinsic motivation, but when something like this pops up, it really is nice.”
Pasqua estimates that one in four Harrison students is involved in music in one form or another.
“There’s a lot of interest among parents and the district for us to do well,” Pasqua says. “It’s kind of unique in these times, when everyone’s afraid of budget and looking for places to cut, we have a superintendent, Louis Wool, who has gone out of his way to preserve the arts,” Pasqua says. “We owe a great deal to him for that.”
Lynn Fusco, the chorus director, says knowing that the arts are important in Harrison means anything is possible.
“Anything we want to try, in terms of new fund-raisers we’d like to do with the kids, is supported. Trips are always supported. “Any supplies we need — instruments, music — the administration and the community is tremendously supportive. We’re a really busy department and we can be busy because of that support.”
Harrison students have performed at Heritage Music Festivals in Atlanta and Chicago and the chorus and orchestra will head to Boston in the spring. The marching band was one of 15 bands nationwide selected to perform at the 50th anniversary of the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December.
The music program also includes small ensembles, such as the Madrigal Singers, Jazz Band and Jazz Chorus.
Harrison junior Halle Mastroberardino, 16, (above) is an alto in the chorus.
“(The Grammy honor) is really exciting because music is so important to us,” she says. “It’s a great honor. To be recognized on a grander scale for what we do and the talent we have is very exciting.”
On any given afternoon from 1:50 to 2:30, walk down Harrison’s A Wing — a corridor that is fairly short in distance but long on talent and determination — and you’ll hear music of all stripes.
Last week, one could hear the string orchestra perfecting passages of Gustav Holst’s “St. Paul’s Suite,” while the concert band blared its way through a rousing “Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa and the choir took its first foray into the world of Charles Gounod’s “Ave Maria.”
All three of the programs end their school day by holding classes simultaneously along A Wing, a schedule that Halle Mastroberardino find comforting.
“Because it’s at the end of the day, after all the academic classes, it’s kind of a relaxed period where you have fun with all your friends. It’s a great outlet to have a relaxing class where you’re learning but having fun.”
“I love to play my instrument, so it’s definitely something to look forward to at the end of a stressful day,” says sophomore Emily Murray, 15, (above) who plays cello in the string orchestra.
On this particular day, Murray and the orchestra were working on the second movement of Holst’s challenging “St. Paul’s Suite,” a string composition in four movements.
“The first movement is difficult, but the fourth is hard, too,” Murray says. “There’s a lot going on in both. We change clefs a lot. We actually change how we read the music during playing, so it’s a little difficult.”
A Grammy honor would be “a big deal,” Mastroberardino says “because I know people who never come down this hallway and it would be cool for kids who do sports to be like ‘Oh! Our music program was recognized!’ to maybe get more kids to join us.”
Serena Takada, 18, (above) is a senior who leads the Harrison Marching Band as drum major in the fall and then takes her seat as first-chair clarinetist in the concert band the rest of the year. The concert band comprises the entire marching band, says Takada, who also plays alto saxophone in the jazz band.
“Marching band is a little more fun, since we’re moving around with our friends,” she says with an ever-present smile. “In concert band, we’re restricted to our seats.”
Music has opened doors for Takada and her bandmates. The December trip to Hawaii put them face to face with Pearl Harbor survivors.
“To have them tell us their history made such a great impact on our lives,” she says.
Local veterans groups were among the first to step up and help the band raise the money needed to travel to Hawaii, so Takada says the band will return the favor and help raise money for veterans groups.
“It’s our way of giving back,” she says.
The senior says the fact that the Grammy honor extends to the entire music program is particularly gratifying.s
“Our orchestra is very new, so seeing the orchestra grow has been amazing. And the chorus has always been amazing. At the end of every winter concert, the chorus and concert band perform “Hallelujah” (from Handel’s ‘Messiah’) together.”
She says the collaborative nature of music teaches lessons far beyond notes on a page.
“Because concert band and marching band are so large, and because we’re trying to make one sound that sounds beautiful, we have to work together and listen to each other. That forces us to listen to other people’s opinions and to their voices and to work together and collaborate with them. That’s something that’s hard to do in other classes.”
Fusco says the value of music reaches far from A Wing, into the lives of students long after they’ve left Harrison.
“I love music and I love to teach music because it’s so unique. Everybody in this building goes home and experiences music in some way, whether it’s in their car on the way home or on an iPad. We have that ability to take something that everyone experiences personally and bring it into the classroom.We’re constantly making connections with how music can inspire creativity, encourage them in their academics, encourage logical thinking and serve as a release of the academic stress they can be under. But we always maintain the idea that music should be that constant, that comfort that they can go to.”
Photos by Matthew E. Brown/The Journal News