Pulling back the curtain: A look inside GHS's performing arts center [The Stamford Advocate, Conn.]
(Stamford Advocate (CT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) May 08--Sitting in her madrigals class this past week, Greenwich High School junior Sarah Lauridsen summed up her feelings about singing in the high school's auditorium with an oft-repeated line.
"The auditorium is the place where music goes to die," she said, quoting GHS Director of Choirs Patrick Taylor.
But you wouldn't know it based on the success of the school's performing arts.
Since the current GHS was built in 1970 on Hillside Road, enrollment in its music and theater arts programs has exploded, with the number of students involved today outpacing the growth of general enrollment eight-fold. Over the last 40 years, support from the Greenwich community for the arts has allowed the district to attract top-flight music and theater educators.
The high school's theater program is nationally recognized, twice named among the top five theater programs in the country since 2005.
The award-winning music program, with five choral ensembles, two orchestras, three concert bands, two jazz bands and electronic music program, attracted attention again last month when 23 students made Connecticut's All-State Chorus, along with several band and orchestra members. Trumbull, with 11 All-State Chorus students named, was the next closest school. The GHS wind ensemble recently performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
And this past week, the district was again named one of the nation's best communities for music education, one of nine districts in Connecticut and the only one in Fairfield County to receive the honor this year from the National Association of Music Merchants.
With such outsized success, some Greenwich residents question why the town should fund a $28.8 million auditorium and music space renovation for a high school performing arts program during these tough economic times. The project would build a new 1,325-seat auditorium -- 475 more seats than its current number -- along with larger practice, storage and instructional spaces for the chorus, orchestra, band and electronic music programs.
But supporters argue that such a strong and popular performing arts program deserves facilities at least comparable to those in surrounding communities, many of whom have funded new facilities in recent years.
As the town's 230-member Representative Town Meeting readies itself to vote Monday on a $358 million municipal budget, which includes $17 million for the auditorium project known as MISA, Greenwich Time talked to the students and teachers who use the school's current performing arts center every day to find out what it's really like.
THE MUSICIANS Senior violist Matt Zizzi could be just about any GHS orchestra or band performer when he describes his experience performing on the high school's auditorium stage.
"The second violins are probably 10, 12 feet away from me and I can't hear them at all. It's just the worst stage I've ever played on," he said.
Band director John Yoon described the situation as being "like a quarterback sending a pass" without knowing who is going to catch it.
Choral students say that after rehearsing and polishing music in the school's rehearsal room, they must amplify the sound of their voices when it's time to perform on the auditorium stage; otherwise, the audience won't hear them.
"We get used to singing a certain volume (in the classroom), and then we have to kick it up so we can be heard in the actual auditorium," 17-year-old student Olivia Franchella said. "So it really changes the dynamics in a piece and really can change the whole outcome of the piece." Freshman Choir Director Erin Schilling describes the acoustical experience from an audience perspective.
"Sitting with my choir during Mr. Taylor's choir's singing, I can pretty much -- because of where I'm sitting -- only hear the certain sections of the choir," she said. "It's not because the sopranos or tenors are singing too loud or their choir isn't balanced, it's because the way the acoustics are in that room; I'm just hearing what's on my side.
"And that's unfortunate, because those students have worked so hard all semester on their music to put on the best performance they can. We don't get to hear what they truly sound like." Each week, 700 students either sing or play instruments in GHS's performing arts center, with its separate classrooms for orchestra and band.
In the spring, GHS's orchestra, band and choral groups have the choice of either performing in sweltering heat or having their music compete with a faulty air conditioner system that emits a clanging sound. Last April, Yoon said, the band performed its spring concert on the stage when it was 80 degrees outside, and 90 degrees inside the auditorium. The band, like the school's other performance groups, invariably decides to turn off the air conditioner and swelter so they can be heard, said Jeffrey Spector, district-wide coordinator of music and art.
The Greenwich Symphony Orchestra, which performs in the auditorium October through April, shares these same challenges.
"The constant buzzing is unbearable," said Mary Radcliffe, who has been president of the Greenwich Symphony Orchestra since 1983. "I sit in the audience and cringe. I'm so ashamed when I listen to international guest soloists perform on stage, because they're not used to that." GHS Orchestra Director Patricia Harada, who also plays violin in the Greenwich Symphony Orchestra, says she can barely hear the rest of the violin section, much less the cellos across the stage, during performances.
"I feel so sorry for these kids," Harada said. "As a musician, you want to do the best you can. These kids work very hard. I train them, and when we get out there, and it's like it's down the tubes. The audience doesn't hear the music at the level we can play at. Acoustically, it's a disaster." The auditorium was built in 1970 as "a box to hold a lot of people," said GHS Theater Director Richard Kohn, with its rectangular shape, more wide than deep, the root cause of its acoustical problems.
An upgrade to the auditorium was expected in 1999 as part of a multi-phase renovation, but most of the plans were scrapped, Kohn said. Instead, cosmetic changes were made, Musical Director Patricia Cirigliano said, like new curtains, carpeting and seats.
With the performing arts program now serving more than 700 students each week, overcrowding and insufficient storage is also a problem in the performing arts center's classrooms. The auditorium is used as an overflow classroom for choral classes, which are sometimes canceled when the school holds assemblies.
Student musicians can sometimes be found practicing in hallways and empty classrooms, because the one practice room doubles as a storage space for a piano and other instruments.
THE ACTORS These days, the GHS auditorium stage has been taken over by the theater department as they construct the stage for "Godspell," the high school's spring production, which will take place May 19-21.
The play's set must be constructed on the stage because the school lacks a set shop, where it could be built and stored while the auditorium stage is used for other performances and events. Instead, the set will stay put on the auditorium stage until the "Godspell" performances end, musical director Patricia Cirigliano said. The set cannot be raised or moved because the school does not have either the space or a "flyout," which would lift scenery above the curtains and allow the stage to multi-task.
Increased storage space and a flyout are both features of the proposed MISA project, according to proposed plans.
This past week, GHS hosted the University of Michigan's jazz ensemble, which gave its performance on the auditorium floor because the stage was occupied by the "Godspell" set.
When the "Godspell" actors go on stage, they'll be equipped with microphones, because otherwise they would not be heard over the orchestra, Cirigliano said. An orchestra pit would solve that problem, as well as the difficulty audience members seated in at least the first 10 rows have hearing performances, said Richard Kohn, GHS theater director.
The musical's microphone rental bill runs about $7,000 each year, Cirigliano said. The school has bought some of the equipment in an effort to reduce the costs. Simple things like spotlighting a singer at the front of the stage isn't possible with the auditorium's current lighting, Cirigliano said.
The lack of adequate space backstage also presents major problems for the cast.
"When we did 'Grease,' there were 100 people in the cast, and when we were waiting offstage, there was no wing space for us, so there were clumps of about 40 people tightly together, with not even an inch of breathing room backstage," GHS junior Sarah Black said. "The audience could see us." Among the facility's other limitations, there is no storage space for costumes, so the department must rent all of the costumes every year, rather than buy standards, such as 1950s outfits, that could be used again. Rentals are $300 per costume for two weeks, or approximately $15,000 for 50 kids, Cirigliano said.
Because of the auditorium's limitations, the theater department uses the auditorium for only its spring production. Its other productions, Kohn said, take place in the "black box" theater, which seats 100 people, on the other side of the high school building.
THE COMPOSERS In 1969, Greenwich High School became the first high school in the country to have its own electronic music program. Today, thousands of secondary schools across the country offer electronic music programs, electronic music teacher Barbara Freedman said.
"The classes are for many kids who don't play in an ensemble or don't want to play in a band or orchestra or sing in the choir," Freedman said. "What do you do with them? How do they learn about music? Kids get to learn about music from creating it on a very cool thing: a computer. They learn the same things as the other music students about melody and base line and harmony. It's all the same in music." Due to limited classroom space, more than 200 students have been turned away from the program each year since 2006, Freedman said, because it doesn't have its own designated space. The department splits class time in the school's art wing with the graphic arts program. Seniors have priority, and of the 120 seats intended for incoming freshmen, only four to 12 freshmen each year are able to take the class.
The program has grown to include classes in audio engineering, sound production, recording engineering and composition. An average of 30 to 35 percent of GHS's electronic music graduating seniors major in music in college, Freedman said.
Under the MISA plan, the new music space would have a classroom and recording studio dedicated to the electronic music program.
Regardless of MISA's fate in Monday's town budget vote, more students are expected to enroll in performing arts classes in the future once the state's mandate for one credit of arts in high school goes into effect for the class of 2018, the programs instructors said.
Kohn said people often don't realize it's not just students who benefit from the quality of the school's auditorium.
"A high school theater serves the community as well as students," Kohn said. "People who participate as audience members are served by a theater production or event. As a community you're brought together by these things, just like you'd say a football game brings a town together.
"A concert or a winning football team are good for a town." Staff Writer Julie Ruth can be reached at email@example.com or 203-625-4428.
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