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Middle School Arts: 'Action in 10!'
Video by Jesse Paddock | Story by Dylan Howlett

 

 


Middle School Arts

In this sampling of Middle School arts offerings, students use myriad instruments — voices and clarinets, leg muscles and paint rollers, and, of course, their minds — to develop an appreciation for the arts. These years offer an opportunity for students to experiment, take risks, explore and expand their own artistic identities in a supportive space.

In fifth and sixth grades, all students are exposed to each arts discipline — instrumental music, movement, theater, visual art and vocal music — via Explorations trimester classes. Seventh- and eighth-graders have an opportunity to further develop and practice skills in a specific discipline for a yearlong course of study via the Electives program.

 

Fifth Grade Chorus — Karen Richardson’s Classroom

In Karen Richardson’s classroom, everyone sings. The chorus Exploration course — one of six trimester-long classes in which all fifth- and sixth-graders participate — intends to help students find both comfort and confidence in their singing voice. An edict in black lettering at the front of Richardson’s classroom reminds every student of their capacity to find the voice within: “Use the talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang but the best.”

The voice is, of course, a delicate instrument that requires regular maintenance. Richardson’s fifth-grade class begins with a dynamic warm-up led by Jalen, who shakes out his hands and feet in time with four different counts: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1. The class then transitions into a ragdoll fold for posture, bending forward at the waist before rolling back up, vertebrae by vertebrae, into a standing position. They stretch their vocal folds by blowing air through their lips, then by creating a zipping sound, then by making a whirring sound. They launch into three common vocal warmups — Zing-A-Mama, Paw Paw Paw, Chocolate Cookie — while Richardson watches and listens closely. “Can you use your arm as a beautiful flourish to show the pitch of your sound?” she asks during the full arpeggio of the “Paw Paw Paw” warmup, and Adrian responds with Pavarotti-like gesticulations.

“Let’s play a game,” Richardson says, and the class requests “Forbidden Pattern.” It is the equivalent of “Simon Says” for “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do,” or the syllables that represent the seven notes on a musical scale. Richardson sings a three-syllable pattern, and she earns a point if any student sings a forbidden pattern — in this case, “Mi-So-La.” The class scores a point if every student refrains from uttering the forbidden pattern. With the score knotted at two wins apiece, one nearly inaudible utterance in the deciding round hands Richardson a victory.


She dispenses with her celebration and leads the class to an open space at the back of the room. “Who can remind us of the definition of an interval?” she asks. One student correctly identifies an interval as the distance between two notes. It’s an invitation for the class to start visualizing those distances. Richardson lays down eight plastic dots in a line across the carpet. “When we figure out where an interval is,” Richardson says, “you have to count the first and the last note.” She asks a student to show her a sixth, and a student walks across six of the dots in descending order, from high to low notes. After several examples, the students return to their seats and attempt to translate the model to the staff on their sheet music. “Can you direct us with page number, system and measure?” Richardson asks one student, and she tasks the group with finding a fourth. One student raises their hand after perusing the sheet music before them: page four, measure 37, atop the word Hor-ses. “OK,” Richardson says, smiling. “Enough sleuthing, friends.”

It’s time to rehearse several songs on the program for their late-February concert, the culmination of the exploration course. They begin with “4 White Horses,” a calypso folk song that they sing from memory. “Quite good,” Richardson says after their initial take. “Let’s talk about it.” She asks her students to articulate their words with better posture, to add a little more intensity and playfulness without adding excessive volume. They repeat the line “Up tomorrow is a rainy day” at least a handful of times to ensure they have the right pitch. One student says their voice always cracks during this part of the song. “Voices crack a lot, and it’s not a big deal,” Richardson says. “It happens. The best way to deal with it is to just sing through it.”


They continue singing through it, all with a sharp lens for the performance and their place within it. After hearing “My Paddle / Land,” the centerpiece of the program, Richardson asks how the fifth-graders would prefer to arrange themselves during the spring concert. “Can we split the first part and the second part?” Kayode asks, and heads nod around the room. The group soon comes to a resolution. They will split both the first and second parts, with some students singing the ostinato — a short repeated pattern, or in this case, “Dip, dip and swing” — and others singing the verse.

The exacting yet accessible evaluation continues on the final song of the day, “Sound of Silence.” “Put your hand up if you remember how many beats of rest before you start singing,” Richardson says, and Nina accurately answers five. Richardson and her students discuss the imagery of the “halo” of light emanating from a street lamp in one of the lyrics, and she reminds them to sustain their notes on “creeping” and “sleeping.” On their sheet music, she points out the “rit.” notation beneath “and whispered in the sounds of silence” — it connotes ritardando, or “to slow down.” The class sings that line once more, decelerating their enunciation at the perfect moment, and Richardson beams. “Oohh!” she says. “It’s getting so good!”

 

Seventh and Eighth Grade Theatre — Ellen Brown’s Classroom & Horton Hall

The message from Ellen Brown is simple. The Middle School theatre teacher tells her group of seventh- and eighth-graders they only have nine rehearsals left before their class performance in early March. Today’s objective? Rehearsing, again, one of their closing scenes from the moment the Fairy of Copyright Infringement enters stage right. They will practice uninterrupted — “Stopping hurts the show,” Brown tells them — and they will make progress. They don’t need to be convinced. “Let’s go! ¡Vámos!” Jake Fox ’29 shouts as he strides across the theatre room toward Horton Hall. The cast and crew of Employees Must Wash Hands… Before Murder have a rehearsal to put on.

Within minutes, the vacant stage in Horton Hall is aglow in spotlights and abustle with stagehands. The space soon transforms into the Burgatorium, a shoddily decorated and poorly operated fast food joint where employees find their manager’s dead body in a freezer. The play, written by Don Zolidis and originally produced in Taylor Hall (the predecessor of Horton Hall) by the Class of 2024, is the first production that Brown has repeated in her tenure at DA thanks to its abundant opportunities for student-driven creativity. That extends even to set design: Students modeled the Burgatorium in 3D using Empire Makers, a design software. “Action in three minutes!” one student yells. “All right! That’s good!” another says as they survey the placement of tables and chairs in the restaurant. “We’re in business!” The Burgatorium’s fry station, known as the “Fry Zone,” receives red paint touch-ups, and an in-depth discussion unfolds about the best way to dispose of a lawyer’s body. Fox looks over to Brown before the rehearsal begins. “Ms. Brown: I’m dead right now, right?” he asks. She nods, and Fox drops to the floor. “I’m looking for reactions to everything that’s happening on stage,” Brown tells the group. “No stopping!”

From the production booth at the back of the theater, two students dim the lights. “Action in 10!” a student shouts. It’s time to test the tightness of the scene, which — like the rest of the play — leans heavily into chaos and hilarity. Actors improvise their lines. They refine the written material and their body positioning, thinking constantly about what works best for the show. Off-stage, students huddle throughout the rehearsal with Brown to discuss choices in acting and direction. Behind the fabricated walls of the Burgatorium, Fox and Henry Martin ’29 admire the lifelike, boulder-sized hole they’ve made — large enough, Martin discovers, through which to carefully toss the lawyer’s body.

The rehearsal ends with a closing number that involves all cast members, including one student who plays a singing tapeworm. The actors think about their expressiveness, their delivery, their movements until the very end. When it’s over, the crew disassembles the set. Five students cluster around Brown, talking excitedly about newly improvised lines and the potential for an even better closing scene. They’re pleased with the entrance of the Fairy of Copyright Infringement, who castigates the Burgatorium staff for improper and unlawful use of the McDonald’s jingle. The cast and crew walk down the halls outside of Horton Hall abuzz with the sound of potential. They now have eight rehearsals left to make the Burgatorium sizzle.

 

Seventh and Eighth Grade Visual Art — Fran Savarin’s Classroom

By the time nascent artists reach Fran Savarin, they have long since started to turn from creators to thinkers — artists who can, with Giacometti-like introspection, think about the purpose, and the power, of their pieces. At the start of one recent Friday afternoon class, Savarin, the Middle School’s visual arts teacher, had students complete a brief assessment to consider more carefully the weight of their art: skills and tools they learned and practiced during a series of recent assignments, what they learned about developing ideas for art, what they learned about presenting their work to others, what they hoped others thought when they looked at their art. It demands of them creativity, and drive, and resilience, which is precisely what Savarin is looking for on this day.


Her seventh- and eighth-graders are completing a print-making project inspired by the 15 character traits of ‘The DA Graduate.’ Students chose a stenciled rendering of their randomly selected trait to create word prints — and, eventually, word mantras that Savarin will distribute in miniature form to classrooms, teachers and students throughout the Middle School.

The process requires thoroughness and discipline. Students use a flat piece of glass to evenly coat a roller in black paint, and then they apply the ink to a ceramic mold with their character trait etched within. Next, they lay a piece of construction paper or a newspaper clipping over the mold before using a handheld press to push the paper into the etching. It calls for just the right amount of ink and moisture. Savarin sprays water from a bottle if the paint looks too dry on the panes of glass. “Your first print is not going to be great,” she tells her students. “But after that, they get better.” It’s all in the rolling. Savarin advises one student to soak up their ink on a smaller footprint, no broader than the width of their roller. She reminds another student to apply paint all the way to the edge of their roller. One student has been laboring over their application for more than five minutes. Savarin suggests they shouldn’t wait too long before applying.

Some students drift away from the multiple printing stations — around which four artists can comfortably gather at one time — to start creating a mantra with their character trait as the focal point. The students who have reached this stage huddle over their iPads as they research possibilities for their mantras. They will eventually feature each of their elements — 22 word prints and mantras in all — in a slideshow they submit to Savarin before their mini-prints begin circulating around the school. But today is for thinking, and thinking deeply, about the art they wish to create. The contemplation extends to the end of class and beyond. As his classmates start filtering out of the room, Fergus Moylan ’28 turns to two of them.

“Have you started thinking about your mantra?” he asks.

 

Sixth Grade Movement — Mary Norkus’ Classroom

There is no safer space for a middle schooler to perform a “donkey kick” than in Mary Norkus’s movement classroom. “What’s a donkey kick?” a sixth-grader asks as he and his classmates line up for warm-up exercises. “Whatever you think!” Norkus says, and soon the space is filled with sixth-graders bending and arching their legs in geometrically aberrant shapes.

Movement — one of the six courses in the Explorations component of the Middle School arts curriculum — seeks to imbue students with an appreciation for dance as expression, and an appreciation for the potential and limits of their bodies. As her sixth-graders continue their warm-up, Norkus offers serene reminders related to tempo and flexibility. “Grab the floor! Bend your knees!” She soon asks the group to model examples of dependent weight exchanges, which require the support or action of others, and independent weight exchanges, which do not. They partner up and take turns modeling both examples in the middle of the floor once Norkus has given them parameters. Drag. Carry. Lift. Roll. And so the students, with great care and benevolence, drag their partners by the arms, carry them in their own arms, hoist their partner over their shoulder and turn their partner over and over across the floor, as if they were a rolling pin.


The cognizance of their own physicality, and its relation to their partners, comes into play toward the end of class, when Norkus randomly splits students into groups of four or five. They are expected to determine their own choreography based on a set of criteria that Norkus displays on her panel: entering the floor one at a time every eight counts, rolling toward a group member and helping each other up, finding all group members and creating a dependent weight exchange, leaving the stage in unison. Each group fans out across the room to script out their performance and debate the merits of individual choices. “How are we going to enter?” “All at the same time?” “No, it’s one by one!” Norkus visits each group and listens to their plans. She smiles as she sees divergent approaches.

“There are different ways to choreograph,” Norkus says after she brings the class back together. One group starts scripting in their notebooks. Another group immediately jumps into walking through their routines. A third group relies on a particularly vocal “director” to drive most of the ideas. Norkus references previously shown examples of professional performances that featured a sole choreographer: The performances in this Movement class have as many as five choreographers, making it all the more imperative to agree on a direction.

The groups return to their planning. Ideas and bodies begin to take shape. The sixth-graders tweak and practice their routines. Norkus watches as Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” plays through the speakers, a soundtrack for future dancers finding the joy in choreography, and the freedom in movement.

 

Middle School Wind Ensemble — Andrew Lovett's Classroom

As the click of a metronome sounds over a speaker at the back of his classroom, Andrew Lovett’s personal tempo has far outpaced the beat. The Middle School band teacher darts in between his wind ensemble students — woodwind and brass instrumentalists who want to sharpen their technique and deepen their knowledge of musical theory — with little regard for the rhythm that pulses overhead. He models scales on a trombone, then a flute, then a trumpet. He repairs a student’s faulty saxophone. He corrects the posture of his trumpeters. “I care about you and your back!” he says. Lovett looks over to his brass instrumentalists. Stand up straight when blowing, he reminds them. Keep your elbows out of your stomach. He instructs his clarinets to play a G note, then an A, then a B-natural, emphasizing their second finger. “We’re starting to get a little behind the click!” Lovett says. “Try one more time!” It’s little more than five minutes into class.


Lovett places a piece of sheet music on each stand. It’s time for the ritual of sight reading, or the practice of performing a piece of music without having played it before. Today’s piece is “Critical Call” from composer JaRod Hall. The piece is anxious, and suspenseful, and urgent. He asks the Middle Schoolers to look for repeated notes, for patterns, for time. “What’s the dynamic at 43?” he asks. “Fortissimo! And it’s a half-note!” The ensemble starts playing at measure nine. Lovett manipulates the tempo on the metronome — 144 beats per minute — using his iPad. One tenor saxophonist plays an F-sharp, while the other plays an F-flat. Lovett stops them and has them replay the notes. “We’re getting somewhere!” Lovett says, and it’s true. The pace is breakneck. Five seconds separate reminders from requests to replay specific measures. Lovett lowers, then raises, the tempo during one rendition. “Hang on to that one,” he says. “We may put it on the menu.”

He turns to what is on the menu, at least for the group’s upcoming concert: “Down by the Salley Gardens,” which offers Lovett the chance to champion habits of learning. He expects his students to practice for at least 90 minutes every week, to hit their down notes, to internalize the rhythm on their own so they can maximize the group’s playing time together. The ensemble tears into a quick runthrough before the end of class. As they place their instruments in their cases and file out, Lovett shouts reminders with metronomic glee.

“Practice your music! Learn the notes! Play it slow! Play it with the metronome!”

Learn more about the arts at DA Middle School at www.da.org/academics/middle-school/arts, and about Durham Academy’s arts offerings across divisions at www.da.org/arts.