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The TASIS High School Music Department: A Growing Reservoir of Knowledge Hiding in Plain Sight
Posted 01/29/2018 05:00PM

By Giorgio Gambazzi ’18

The growth of the High School Music Program here at TASIS has been exponential over the past six years, though many people may not notice all the benefits as they fly through their academic year. I spoke with High School Music Director Samantha Forrest to learn more about everything the impressive program now offers.

Ms. Samantha Forrest

Ms. Samantha Forrest

The Director

Professional vocalist and High School Music Director Samantha Forrest has helped take the status of music here at TASIS to a whole new level. Having previously taught both voice and music as a subject in Australia and the UK, Ms. Forrest came to TASIS in 2011 after completing a Master’s degree in International Education and was initially engaged to teach music in the Middle School. While music as a subject was well established in the Elementary and Middle Schools, at that time there were very few options to pursue music in the High School, and no established music elective courses. Ms. Forrest envisioned a new academic path to both promote and support music, a vision shared at that time by incumbent Headmaster Michael Ulku-Steiner and by Fine Arts Department Chair Martyn Dukes, and in 2012 she transitioned to the High School Music Department and ever since has continued to build a wide range of new resources and opportunities. She currently teaches four different subject areas, manages a team of 10 peripatetic instrumental and vocal teachers, and coordinates all High School and school-wide musical events. In addition, she coordinates the High School’s Family-Style Advisor Dinners.

The Knowledge

Upon entering the High School realm in 2012, Ms. Forrest established four different academic courses: Music Literacy, Choir, Instrumental Ensemble, and Musical Theater. When I asked her for a description of each class, she first noted, “Music literacy provides the fundamental theoretical and historical understanding of the subject, infused with a significant technological component within the syllabus that is necessary to enable students to develop their creative skills beyond the practical playing of an instrument, and it also provides the resources necessary to adapt to the changing shape and expectations of the music industry.” Ms. Forrest has therefore adapted her classroom to include music tech work-stations to meet this requirement and continues to upgrade software and recording equipment. The HS Choir runs both as a credited arts elective class and also as an extracurricular activity that meets Mondays and Wednesdays after school. Similarly, the Instrumental Ensemble class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays and consists of numerous students playing various instruments. Musical Theater is somewhat of a hybrid, with students exposed to the vocal, acting, and stagecraft/choreographic rigors required of this musical genre.

Ms. Forrest teaches all four of these subjects alongside Maestro di Canto Jonathan Morris, who has worked with TASIS students since 2000, and she feels that “the school must provide a comprehensive and balanced range of activities in which students can be inspired and strive to stretch themselves, to dare to try something different, to perhaps discover a talent they perhaps don’t realize they have—that is the duty of education, especially when there are so many gifted and talented students out there.”

Mr. Jonathan Morris introduces performers from the High School Vocal Studio.

Mr. Jonathan Morris introduces performers from the High School Vocal Studio.

Growth

Through the persistent efforts of Ms. Forrest, the music program at TASIS has tripled in size overall. The choir went from 5–6 students to 25–30, and the ensemble went from having a couple of pianists, a guitar, and two violins to being a full-blown, 18-member orchestra. Since 2013 Ms. Forrest has established individual music teaching studios that currently cater to students learning piano, guitar, percussion, violin, viola, cello, flute, trombone, saxophone, and voice, all of which would not be possible without the professional and specialized music teachers who come to TASIS regularly to inspire our students: Daniel Bagutti (percussion), Genevieve Brothwood (violoncello), Dessislava Deltcheva (violin and solfeggio), Jonathan Morris (voice), Lello Narcisi (flute), Gloria de Piante Vicin (pianoforte), Carmen Pirrone (viola), and Alessio di Tonno (guitar). Faculty members who contribute to the High School music studios include Ms. Forrest (voice and violoncello), Melody Tibbits Zanecchia (elementary voice), and Eric Walser (guitar and mandolin).

Throughout her seven years at TASIS, Ms. Forrest has also built a solid relationship with the Conservatorio Della Svizzera Italiana. For selected school performances, professional players are engaged to play and perform amongst the students. This is an excellent opportunity for aspiring musicians, as they discover new role models and obtain first-hand knowledge of what a successful career in music is like. Ms. Forrest also pointed out that working with pre-professional level students and other professional players provides an incredibly valuable platform on which our students can perform and a unique opportunity to be surrounded by a professional quality of sound that not only serves to inspire and enthrall, but also raises students’ expectations of themselves and provides a truly rare and unforgettable experience. TASIS organizes these festivals to give students a glimpse of a possible career in music and to provide them a chance to discover their passions.

Backed by a professional chamber orchestra, the High School and Faculty Choirs perform at the 2017 Spring Arts Festival.

Backed by a professional chamber orchestra, the High School and Faculty Choirs perform at the 2017 Spring Arts Festival.

Festivals and Other Major Performances

The annual TASIS Spring Arts Festival is a moment in the academic year where creativity is witnessed in immense proportions. When the festival was founded way back in 1974, it concentrated more on fine arts such as painting and photography than on musical performances. As recently as 2012, only two or three soloists were showcased, but now there are up to 10 soloist performances backed by an orchestra each year and four straight days of musical performances. While the professional orchestra supports a number of the musical features, the festival also showcases the combined and individual talents from all divisions, including those of Middle School students (led by Middle School Music Director Sarah Grove Locke) and Elementary School students (led by Elementary School Music Director Melody Tibbits Zanecchia).

An Elementary School student conducts a professional chamber orchestra at the 2017 Spring Arts Festival.

An Elementary School student conducts a professional chamber orchestra at the 2017 Spring Arts Festival.

The TASIS Christmas Service also conveys this fascinating aspect of the TASIS Music Program, a favorite event of Founder M. Crist Fleming. The 2017 Christmas Service comprised about 150 student and faculty performers, including the Elementary School, Middle School, and High School. The Service has become so large and inclusive that it was necessary to move from the cozy Sant’Abbondio Church around the corner from TASIS to the more spacious San Nicolao della Flüe in Lugano.

The 2017 Christmas Service

The 2017 Christmas Service

Individual Music Studios

Ms. Forrest told me that when it came to the creation of the new music studios on campus, she was greatly helped and encouraged by Chairman of the Board Lynn Fleming Aeschliman, “who understood the vision and thus provided us with greatly improved resources.” The number of music studios grew from two to eight, and every day the corridors are packed with students eager to practice, create, and play together. Sometimes the rooms are so full that students have to wait their turn. “This is truly a good sign,” said Ms. Forrest, who loves to see the musical facilities at TASIS exploited to the fullest.

To Ms. Forrest, the most important thing is to “spark a student’s interest to start when they’re young because once they get to the point of making decisions about college and university it is often too late.” Thanks to her efforts and those of Ms. Grove Locke and Ms. Tibbits Zanecchia—who inspire the School’s young musicians to continue honing their craft during their Elementary and Middle School years—TASIS students are now able to participate in multiple bands, ensembles, choral groups, a capella singing, a music production club, and more, something that is essential within a creative and diverse community. TASIS now provides fully equipped piano, string, voice, guitar, and percussion studios and boasts a collection of twenty African djembes, a valuable collection of Orff instruments, full class sets of guitars, keyboards, recorders, hand percussion, and even some super colorful junior steel drums! All of these resources are growing year by year, with the sole objective to provide aspiring musicians multiple and varied opportunities they deserve at a school like TASIS.

Piano Teacher Gloria de Piante Vicin supports an Elementary School piano student during the December 2017 Recital.

High School students perform at the Instrumental and Vocal Recital during the 2017 Spring Arts Festival.

High School students perform at the Instrumental and Vocal Recital during the 2017 Spring Arts Festival.

Rhythm is in Our Bodies

Why is music so important to society, and more specifically to us as individuals? It’s because rhythm is within us. Pulse is what controls our heart, and thus we have a natural tendency to seek it. “Music is a community builder; it is an organic way of expressing yourself that is essentially intrinsically within all of us,” said Ms. Forrest. “It is a language that we can all access, and it needs to be nurtured and cultivated.”

There is an emotive part to music and sounds that is undeniable, and, as Ms. Forrest said, “If a particular piece of music moves you, then there is nothing else that will move you in the same way.” Noticing the place of humans in this world, I realize we are all born prone to some sort of music. It is as if our need for sound is encoded within our DNA, and thus it would be foolish in trying to minimize it.

The 2017 Spring Arts Festival Concert

The 2017 Spring Arts Festival Concert

Notable Accomplishments

Thanks to the possibilities TASIS is offering to students, several alumni are now pursuing notable careers in music. A few years back, there was a student named Lucas who had no particular interest in the technological facet of music. As soon as Ms. Forrest introduced him to Logic Pro, a software program that enables the creation of individual compositions, Lucas went on since graduating and made it his life. When talking about Lucas, Ms. Forrest notes: “He was a shy, almost introverted young man, and you would have never known that he would one day thrive as a professional music producer if TASIS hadn’t offered this course.”

Logic Pro Setup

Logic Pro setup

Another student, Camilla, decided she wanted to become a songwriter, and at the end of her senior year she set out to become one. “This girl played a little piano and loved to write lyrics; however, unbeknown at the time she was also hiding a great voice, but she was too shy to actually perform in front of anyone,” said Ms. Forrest. “If the right resources and encouragement hadn't been present, she might never have discovered her voice and hence set out to achieve her dream to be a songwriter.”

Other accomplished students include Tennessee Chapman Hildebrand ’17 (pictured playing violin above), who will pursue a degree in Music Industry Studies at Loyola University New Orleans after using a gap year to study Italian and learn how to hand-craft violins at the internationally renowned Academia Cremonensis in Cremona, Italy. Hilary Aeschliman ’13 went on to the Bernstein School of Music Theater in Bologna and has recently been accepted into the Royal College of Music in London to study Opera, and Jan Vincent Huntenberg ’13 was accepted into world-renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston to pursue a degree in Composition with a minor in Conducting.

Ms. Sarah Grove Locke and Ms. Melody Tibbits Zanecchia at the 2017 Spring Arts Festival.

Ms. Sarah Grove Locke and Ms. Melody Tibbits Zanecchia at the 2017 Spring Arts Festival.

The Music Industry

The music industry nowadays is enormous and is constantly evolving. With so many new and varied job opportunities in categories such as songwriting, media and film, sound engineering, production, and business, the world needs talented musicians more than ever. “Part of my vision here at TASIS is to embrace this reality and provide vocational pathways to students who may want to pursue these interests,” said Ms. Forrest. “It is important we give the students the means to access such developments within the world.” As I spoke to her, it was easy to see that the entire Music Department is on board to take it to a whole new level. And this is a good thing because year by year there are so many more students who prove to be talented and interested musicians.

The 2017 Christmas Service

The 2017 Christmas Service

Possible Improvements and Changes

Chuckling, Ms. Forrest told me, “It would be nice to one day to conceive of a dedicated music building...or at least to eventually move out of the basement!” She also shared with me how grateful she feels for all the support she receives, and how lucky she is for being at a school like TASIS. One of Ms. Forrest’s goals is for students and their families to embrace a greater understanding of all the possibilities that are out there within the music industry, much of which is moving and changing at the same rate as the IT industry. “Nowadays, entertainment, both live and recorded, plays an enormous part of everyone’s everyday lives, from your Spotify playlist to composing and recording your own material on your iPhone!” she said. “To keep up with this growth, we will need even more advanced technological tools.”

Although it is still an embryonic idea, Ms. Forrest and Mr. Dukes have discussed implementing the concept of an arts carousel in the High School. This would allow students in grades 9 and 10 to sample all of the various arts elective options, thus enabling them to make more informed choices prior to their junior and senior years while also encouraging students to embrace all the arts on offer without choosing one just because it is a requirement. In so doing, students may discover things they have true a passion for, and teachers would be more able to identify and nurture talent early on.

Ms. Forrest directs the combined School Choirs at the 2017 Spring Arts Festival’s Opening Choral Concert.

Ms. Forrest directs the combined School Choirs at the 2017 Spring Arts Festival’s Opening Choral Concert.

We Often Take Things for Granted

Music in life is omnipresent. Could you imagine going to the gym without your headphones? Or how many people wake up in the morning, and the first thing they do is play their preferred music? Somehow music in most schools isn’t promoted enough, with little emphasis on this component of life that indeed acts as a driving force for our society. Most branches that derive from the tree of music are left unsupported and looked down upon. This is where Ms. Forrest—along with help from the TASIS Board of Directors, Administration, and entire Music Faculty—wants to make a difference. And she is proving day by day that she sticks with her promise. Endless amounts of talents are cultivated each year, and many more are discovered through the new courses, performance platforms, and resources.

Guitar Teacher Alessio di Tonno with band students during the 2017 International Jazz Day celebration.

Guitar Teacher Alessio di Tonno with band students during the 2017 International Jazz Day celebration.

This is Just the Beginning

At the end of my interview with Ms. Forrest, I was left with these words: “I’m very fortunate to be a teacher here because the subject is supported and has been allowed to grow. Thanks to the continued support of the Headmaster—from Mr. Ulku-Steiner in 2012 to Mr. Christopher Nikoloff today—and Chairman of the Board Lynn Aeschliman, I’ve been able to develop my vision here, and I hope give back to TASIS students the joy, energy, enthusiasm, and high expectations I was lucky enough to have when I was a student and young performer. I’m also very excited about all the potential that is still here and ready to be cultivated.”

From my point of view, and from what I’ve learned not only by interviewing Ms. Forrest but also by attending her classes, Ms. Forrest has genuinely paved the way for the High School Music Program to grow. It warms my heart to know that there are so many teachers at our school who hold visions and honestly care about their students, as well as their outcomes. It is with teachers like Samantha Forrest that TASIS builds its reputation.

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