The fall 2015 production of Bernstein’s “Mass” exemplifies how Blair’s precollege and college programs build off each other
By Bonnie Arant Ertelt, Photos by Daniel Dubois
Mass takes place when the show’s lead character, the Celebrant, snaps, giving in to forces that make him question his faith. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, two children in his flock approach him, and through their innocence, begin to restore his faith in humanity.
This is, of course, an oversimplification of Mass, but the simplicity of its central tenet is what stood at the center of a gargantuan production last fall at Blair that called for 100 singers (20 from the Blair Children’s Chorale, a choir of 60 voices, 18 street players and the leads), 30 instrumentalists on stage, 50 players in the pit, and enormous sets of percussion. Nearly two-thirds of Blair’s student body was involved with the production. Though not the first time Blair’s precollege and college students have performed together, it was certainly the largest production to involve both programs, and it served as an example of how the programs coexist and build off each other to the benefit of all the students and faculty.
“Most of the precollege students had not been in a show before,” says Tucker Biddlecombe, associate professor of choral activities and choral director. “They were a little shell-shocked at the beginning, with all the choreography and everything else. So, the biggest challenge was meeting expectations, and the biggest expectation was completion. The college kids helped them, particularly Steven [Fiske, who played the Celebrant]. It was art imitating life.”
Each group rehearsed separately until all the elements were brought together closer to the performance. “There was some trepidation with the college students,” Biddlecombe says. “It was such a time-consuming production at a busy time of the semester.
“Then we brought things together, and there were long, extended moments when I would watch my choral students when they weren’t singing,” Biddlecombe says, “and they were totally focused on the stage, really engaged in what was going on. It was a nice catharsis to have after initially feeling really reticent to ask so much of them. The only reason we could pull off Mass was that all the students met our expectations of time and talent.”
Meeting those expectations across a range of ages works at Blair because there are both precollege and collegiate programs in residence at the school, which began as the precollege Blair Academy of Music in 1964 and became Vanderbilt’s 10th school in 1981, officially beginning its degree-granting college program in 1982. As a result of this natural evolution, there are no borders between the precollege and collegiate programs. About 50 percent of Blair’s faculty teach in both the collegiate and precollege programs, including five of Blair’s department chairs and 10 members of the Nashville Symphony.
“The lack of boundaries makes everyone better,” says Stephen Miahky, Joseph Joachim Professor of Violin and first violinist of the Blair String Quartet. “The precollege students bring an excitement about music that is inspirational, and the college students behave more maturely when they find themselves as role models and mentors for the younger ones.”
Pam Schneller, associate dean for the precollege and adult program and senior lecturer in choral music, has long been an evangelist for the blended community of precollege and college musicians, for the benefits they gain from being around each other and the benefits Blair’s faculty gain from teaching both.
“Quality and standards are raised for everyone,” Schneller says. “Teaching a variety of ages brings insights about teaching that benefit everybody.”
Biddlecombe, who has taught middle and high school students as well as college students and directs Blair’s MA5 music-education program in addition to the choral program, witnessed these insights throughout the staging of Mass.
“Mass is about forces working against society that then force the Celebrant to give up, and it’s the innocence of children who redeem that act,” he says. “That’s what my college kids talked about most, was how those two precollege kids so masterfully pulled that off. They could never have done it if they weren’t just innocent kids themselves. No one told them how hard what they had to do was,” he stressed. “They just did it. They are able to do remarkable things just by virtue of being young and not knowing how hard these things are to do.
“With college kids, I can get caught up in the minutiae of music, and I sometimes think it takes them away from why they originally started to do it,” Biddlecombe says. “Sometimes you lose perspective about why you’re teaching and who you’re trying to reach. The precollege choirs keep me honest as a choral conductor. Working with precollege kids always reminds me to bring it back to center.”