Moved by the blues

Music has a transforming effect – but showing kids that isn't just a matter of handing them a mike.

It looks like a teacher's nightmare.

Forty-some teens are milling around a room in a large urban high school. Many arrive late, with friends in tow. It takes five minutes just to sort out who belongs there. Half the kids don't bother to remove their coats, as if it might not be worth the effort.

Finally, Gregory Rahming – a dapper African-American baritone with flashing eyes – steps forward and calls for order in sonorous tones.

A casual observer could be forgiven for not knowing this group has already met several times to compose blues music with guidance from Mr. Rahming. It would be even more difficult to guess that their performance at the New York Festival of Song is just a day away.

What is clear is that it won't be an easy journey from here to the stage.

Schools are generally very open to outside programs, like this one, that many believe can reach students in ways that math or English may not. But it's one thing to cherish faith in the power of the arts. It's quite another to be the instructor charged with forming a connection that – powerful as it can be – is not automatic.

These close encounters with the arts take different forms. In Boston, the Cantata Singers sends composers and chorus members into classrooms to help students write groups of songs. In Columbia, S.C., and other college towns, the American String Teachers Association puts college-level music students in schools to help kids play stringed instruments.

The New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) places professional singers in high schools for lessons designed to spark interest in various forms of song. But much can depend upon the depth of an instructor's conviction that what he is offering the students – whether they appear initially to want it or not – is of genuine value.

Rahming has been teaching for NYFOS in New York City public high schools for seven years now, and has become accustomed to success. In his first year with NYFOS, he was assigned to a special school serving kids who had been expelled from other schools. He remembers the experience as a challenging but rewarding one in which the students made a strong connection with both him and the music.

And in a Connecticut high school where he performed an opera program he created, a teacher was astonished to see three of the toughest boys – apparently moved by Rahming's staging of a scene from "The Marriage of Figaro" – linger after class to shake his hand.

But this year, his third at Hillcrest High School in southern Queens, Rahming has struggled with undisciplined classes and students whose enthusiasm he can't seem to tap. To make matters worse, an illness has prevented him from singing for them and has thus deprived him of a technique almost guaranteed to generate interest.

It's been a tough month, and Rahming is even wondering if he wants to put out the effort to teach for NYFOS next year.

The shape of a lesson

In theory, this should have been a relatively easy assignment. Some years, Rahming has labored to interest high-schoolers in more-esoteric genres, but this year NYFOS decided to focus on the blues, a form not too far removed from the music most of the students favor. Rahming has spent eight days, scattered over a month, at the school, teaching three different classes about the basic elements of song.

The lessons began by defining terms like "melody" and "rhythm," and then moved on to give students a feel for the twelve-bar structure of a blues song.

Next, Rahming asked them to write poems on two topics – food and love – that could be shaped into lyrics. He then put their words to music and began to help them prepare for a performance in conjunction with four New York high schools.

The students Rahming is teaching are in elective music classes, and most insist they like to sing. Yet the day before the concert, as they attempt to rehearse the "Hillcrest Food Love Jones Blues," which Rahming helped them write, they are disorganized and many seem apathetic.

"I really have no idea if this is going to work," admits Rahming at the end of a discouraging day. In addition to a poor attitude on the part of students, Rahming is wrestling with the limitations of 45-minute periods and logistics that prevented the three classes – who will perform as a whole – from ever practicing together.

But despite a tough month and some uncertainty about the next day's performance, Rahming never questions the importance of pouring the arts into the lives of kids, particularly those whose lives may not offer them exposure to such pursuits.

He remembers only too well the role that music – and an inspired teacher – played in his life. "Music changed me and it saved me," he says. "I can never stop being grateful."

He grew up in Miami, where he worked in the family auto parts shop that would, it was expected, become his career. But while attending public school, he stepped into the choral room one day and heard the chorus singing the final "Amen" of a musical version of the Lord's Prayer.

"I couldn't believe they could make that beautiful sound, and I just knew that that was what I wanted to do with my life," he recalls. He also recollects Leslie Thomas, the choir's director, who spotted Rahming's musical talents and urged him on to college and a singing career that has included opera performances around the world and stints on Broadway.

"Before that day, I was an average nobody," says Rahming. Music gave him a channel for energy and enthusiasm.

It's a magic some of the Hillcrest students will experience as well, he says. Perhaps not all of them and perhaps not today. But teaching is about planting seeds; the hard thing for the teacher to accept, he says, is that "he may not be around to see those seeds blossom."

Performance day

Yet the Hillcrest harvest arrives more quickly than he could have imagined.

The day after the lackluster rehearsal, his students make a clamorous entrance at the theater on a Manhattan college campus. Mingling with students from four schools, they create a group of a few hundred and are so boisterous that some of the adults wince and cover their ears.

The students settle down when they realize the program will begin with performances by their five teaching assistants.

Rahming – finally feeling better and confident about his voice – is paired with another teaching assistant for a duet from "Porgy and Bess," and also performs a Negro spiritual solo. Other selections include an aria from a Mozart opera and "Tonight" from "West Side Story."

Almost immediately, the noisy disregard with which most student entered the room disappears. Some even have tears in their eyes as they hear Porgy (Rahming) sing to Bess, "you is my woman now."

They applaud wildly at the end of each number, with the Hillcrest students howling for Rahming.

Next it's the students' turn. Hillcrest is scheduled to perform last.

Suddenly earnest and subdued when their time comes, they file neatly up onto stage and quickly arrange themselves. A group of soloists steps forward with their peers lined up behind them to sing the chorus. Rahming turns to face them and offer a visual and vocal support many seem to be craving.

Despite a visible bout with nerves, the first soloist bites energetically into her lines. "I woke up this morning/feeling the blues and I don't know why," she wails. The chorus picks up, and the second soloist hits her notes with equal conviction. Suddenly, the auditorium is swaying with the Hillcrest kids and their sound.

"I love to eat all the time/I've got the food Jones blues," they moan to their audience, and then continue to punch out lyrics that are both funny and poignant.

They are on stage for perhaps 10 minutes, but by the time they croon their closing lines, "You bring me joy/You bring me life," they know they have been a hit.

The next day, Rahming finds a group transformed when he goes to school for his final session with the kids. "I feel like I'm on the top of the world," says ninth-grader Asia Nixon. Others hug and slap one another in congratulation.

Some of the students ask how they can find a choir they can sing with regularly. A couple say they're now dreaming of careers as performers.

Almost all express awe at Rahming's performance. "We had a professional here next to us all the time, and I didn't even know it," marvels 12th-grader Chidi Aboaja.

"Can we applaud you?" asks one student in Rahming's second class. And then the group – only yesterday restless and inattentive – bursts into hearty applause.

Today, all three sections listen closely as Rahming praises them for their performance, but he then goes on to tell them that they were a difficult group that he could have taught much more if they had been better-behaved.

But suddenly, his certainty that he will be back next year has returned, and it is with a peculiar mix of severity and enthusiasm that he addresses his kids. "You pulled it up, you made it so good," he says. "But for anyone who might take the class next year, you tell them that I like order. Make sure you spread the word."

• E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

'The Hillcrest Food Love Jones Blues'

Excerpts from a song by the music students of Ronald Thompson at Hillcrest High School in Queens, N.Y.

I. I woke up this morning

Feeling the blues and I don't know why.

This darn blues got me so hungry

Lord I feel like I could die.

II. Before I go to school

I sit on the stool

And I chew on something cool

That maintains me

And sustains me

Like when I have my breakfast.

III. I like spicy food

Spicy food ain't friends with me

Give me some oxtails, mac & cheese, rice & beans

And don't forget my cornbread and collard greens.

Chorus: I got the blues

The food, food, food Jones blues

I love to eat all the time

I got the food Jones blues.

IV. Chicken is good

Yellow rice is great

Pancakes in the morning

Waffles that are fake

A sandwich for lunch

Jerk meat for dinner

Can't help but scrape my plate

Lord I got me a winner.

Chorus

V. I trust my stomach

As I nourish my soul

As I succumb to my hunger

The day grows old

I expect this appetite to have no change

The love of this food

Will remain the same.

VI. Left home this morning

Thinking to myself on the train.

How everything is so crazy

And my life is such a pain.

VII. When I was young

My old lady left me all alone...

Didn't have a comb, home, left the dog

All I do is roam

I waiting to hear from her on the telephone.

Final chorus (repeated three times):

You bring me joy

You bring me life

You make everything

Feel so right.

You bring me joy

You bring me life

I think about you

All through the night.

I got the blues

The love love love Jones blues

Why did you have to go away

I got the love love love Jones blues.

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