By PAUL A. BARRA
COLUMBIA — In an effort to become an institution dedicated to the arts, St. Peter’s School has formed a dramatic partnership with a local college. The University of South Carolina provides the teachers, and the capital city parochial school serves as a laboratory for them.
A music professor and her graduate fellows teach music education and strings to all 200 students at St. Pete’s, from 4-year-olds to sixth-graders. Each student gets two or three hours of music training every week during school hours. After school hours, lessons are offered in guitar and piano.
Older students also participate in a special program called ChorDrama, which integrates choir, music, drama, dance and creative writing. When The Miscellany observed a ChorDrama class for fifth- and sixth-graders just before lunch on Sept. 1, we came away dazzled by the creative energy of the teachers and the response from the children. At the end of an hour of constant movement and singing, the large group of students broke into three units, each sang and acted out one part of the harmony of a song to God that was disguised as a phone call. Each small group had graduate students as directors, and Wendy H. Valerio directed the entire performance. It turned out that the song was not the only thing that turned out to be something else than its beginning.
“This program works really well and was a gift in disguise,” Valerio said.
In 1996, the school had contacted Valerio, associate professor of music at the university, to inquire about hiring a music teacher. She sent along a couple of her own students to help out. Eventually, the relationship between the two schools evolved into its present partnership: Valerio sends undergraduates who need teacher training to St. Peter’s, and she and her graduate assistants teach music classes there. The assistants are paid by the parochial school, the elementary students receive the benefit of cutting edge musicians and theorists as teachers, and everybody wins.
“It’s unusual for a school, but everybody gets a lot out of it,” the professor said.
Five graduate assistants teach the classes at St. Peter’s; each is working toward either a doctorate or a master’s at the USC School of Music, and their total years of teaching experience is 37, not counting Valerio’s own 16. Meredith Bates and Charlene Dell both taught in public schools and noticed immediate differences and similarities in the Catholic school.
“Their demeanor is different,” said Dell, a 15-year veteran of the classroom. “When I came into the class, they stood up with their hands at their sides to answer my questions.”
Bates laughed and said: “But they’re still kids. They’re angels, but they don’t always act like it.”
Yet the ChorDrama program hums along like a well-drilled dance company, despite the age and inexperience of the actors. Peter Santucci credits the unique structure of the Gordon method the team use, and Ching Ching Yap agreed that their training was different from most school music programs. Besides ChorDrama, for instance, Ming Tu teaches real music to kids as young as 4.
She also helps with a day of ChorDrama on Fridays. The day The Miscellany attended, the fifth and sixth grades sang intricate harmonies and moved in choreographed dances to tell their part of the phone call story. They seemed to revel in the work, however.
“It’s fun work,” said Sherrell Gibson, age 11. “We have more freedom.”
“Yeah, it’s almost all play instead of all work. You can make up your own moves,” said Megan Gillyard, 11.
“When you sing and act like this you can get your feelings out,” agreed Eleanor Jones, 11.
These comments seemed to belie the organization of the ChorDrama performance we had just witnessed on the stage at Murphy Hall, to say nothing of the effort involved in it. The students were breathless and excited about the change in routine from regular classwork.
“I came to St. Peter’s to learn about God and to get a good education,” said Kathleen Grady, 10, who has been attending the school since first grade. “This program helps.”
Students perform at the weekly school Mass and minister as cantors there, according to the pastor of St. Peter’s Church, Msgr. Leigh Lehocky. Some, like Timothy Stetar, 11, are cantors at regular weekend Masses at the parish. He and Aaron Timmons, 10, find the new approach to music education much more enjoyable than the usual piano lessons. Timmons thinks the teachers make the difference: “They are nice, and they make music fun.”
Back at regular school, meantime, Carole McConkey had her fourth-grade students practicing the writing of dialogue. Dialogue might be essential for many forms of writing, but as a drama device it fits in nicely with the school’s overall plan of incorporating the arts across the curriculum. Religion and arts teacher Dawn Ambruzc sees more than the obvious tie-in between music and faith: “The arts enhance everything, even each other.”
St. Peter’s School is building its reputation as a school enhanced by the arts, with music as the foundation. And as the reputation grows, so does interest. Faculty members are starting to come to pick up their students from music classes early — to see the phenomenon as it grows.
“Every child has to be good at something. This program gives them the opportunity to investigate the possibilities,” said Madeline C. McMillion, principal.
Scheduling the integrated music and arts into the already rigorous curricula offered at the school has been a headache-maker, McMillion acknowledged, but her vision fuels the extra work. She sees a traveling troupe from St. Peter’s in the future, singing and acting in other venues, telling the dramatic tale of the artistic development of their school.