On Valentine’s Day of this year, our nation was horrified at the news of another mass murder in an American school. Our students and staff at Brattleboro Union High School struggled with our fears, outrage and sadness over the shooting deaths of 15 students and two teachers in Parkland, Florida.
As was the case at many U.S. schools, many of our students mobilized and joined the call for stricter gun-control laws, while others stood in defense of second amendment rights. Teachers worked to encourage students to take agency in voicing and acting on their concerns. We also had to be sensitive about not alienating students whose beliefs and responses may have placed them in the minority. In each subject area, we looked for meaningful ways to respond.
At Brattleboro, we decided to use Frank Ticheli’s “An American Elegy” for the May Pops Concert. Ticheli composed the work in 1999 in memory of those who died at Columbine High School and to honor those who survived. This work allowed us to place the recent shootings in a broader context, to talk about how Columbine created the need to begin having schools practice “lock-down” drills and develop plans for responding to violent attackers. It enabled us to explore how composers and performers can express the feelings that arise in response to such horrific acts – this work is especially effective in depicting sorrow, grief, hope and determination. Finally, it made us feel like we were responding in a way that had meaning and expressed compassion – even if only within our small music department community and our concert audience.
“An American Elegy” is not the typical fare for our Pops Concert, which usually features lighter selections, often from movie soundtracks, Broadway musical scores or familiar classical music. Our students agreed that the piece should end the band’s portion of the program (but it shouldn’t end the concert) and that our performance needed to be preceded by some words – our reasons for programming the work and some thoughts on gun-related violence in schools.
Working together with a junior alto saxophonist, we drafted a preamble to our performance which she read to our audience. She is a passionate visual artist who is in our school’s Visual and Performing Arts Academy in addition to playing in the band and competing on the softball team. Here is what she read:
Tonight, we conclude the band’s performance with Frank Ticheli’s “An American Elegy.” An elegy is a poem of serious reflection, often a lament for the dead. Here is what Ticheli wrote about this work:
“‘An American Elegy’ is, above all, an expression of hope. It was composed in memory of those who lost their lives at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, and to honor the survivors. It is offered as a tribute to their great strength and courage in the face of terrible tragedy. I hope the work can also serve as one reminder of how fragile and precious life is and how intimately connected we all are as human beings.”
When two Columbine High School students opened fire on their schoolmates, killing 12 of them and one teacher, people around the world were stunned. While it certainly wasn’t the first deadly shooting in a U.S. school, the scope and brutality of it was shocking and horrifying. Nineteen years later, we can see that this was just the beginning of an era of gun violence perpetrated on students and educators in our schools. Listen to these figures compiled by the Washington Post:
Frank Ticheli could not have foreseen the overwhelming number of unbelievably tragic gun-related murders that would follow Columbine in schools in places like:
His poignant music serves to remind us of the sacredness of each of the lives that have been lost or impacted by senseless gun violence, in the very places where students should feel the most safe. Tonight, our band will perform An American Elegy to honor all 187,000 of them. We desperately yearn for our country to come together to find lasting solutions to this horrifying epidemic.
Our performance that followed was among the most heartfelt in my history with the BUHS band. Many eyes, including my own, were tear-filled. Our audience was deeply moved and made this clear in their delayed, then prolonged response, and by many words of gratitude after the concert. Connecting emotion to experience gives it more lasting impact. My enduring hope is that this performance and its powerful emotions will have long-term impacts on my students’ compassion and empathy and that the memory of it will strengthen their resolve to find meaningful and lasting solutions to our nation’s epidemic of gun violence in schools.
Steve Rice is in his 32nd year as director of bands at Brattleboro (Vermont) Union High School. He has been recognized as Vermont Music Educator of the Year and has received the Arthur Williams Award for Meritorious Service to Arts by the Vermont Arts Council. His band represented Vermont in the 2009 Inaugural Parade for President Barack Obama.