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Building a Contemporary Music Program at BHR

PHOTO CAPTION:  Guitar/strings teacher Bernie Birgenheier, center, of Senchant's Art of Teaching in Canton, looks exuberant as he performs with students at Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton in the first concert to be held in the school's new music room on June 22. Several students sang or played instruments. With Mr. Birgenheier are Blue Hills students Britney Dion of Randolph at left and at right, Evan Jurdan of Dedham.  Photo by Judy Bass.

By Judy Bass

When the topic of creating a music program for students who play instruments or sing at Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton was brought up by the Blue Hills Regional District School Committee a few years ago – specifically by member Charles W. Flahive of Westwood - they knew exactly who had the right credentials to get the job done: Blue Hills Superintendent James P. Quaglia.

“The District School Committee’s request was at a perfect nexus with my skill set in music,” said Supt. Quaglia. Not only did his first college degree enable him to teach music, but he has been playing the guitar since childhood and still performs professionally whenever he can. He also spent 13 years as a professional cabinet maker and carpenter, in addition to working for his father part-time from the age of 10.

“This was tailor-made for a person like me, with a background in music and construction,” Supt. Quaglia said.

After it became clear that he would spearhead this new initiative, a host of key decisions had to be made. When could musical instruction be provided, given what Supt. Quaglia calls the “crammed” nature of the students’ schedules at Blue Hills?  Where in the Blue Hills building would there be a suitable physical space for the program? How would it be outfitted with the necessary equipment? Who would teach the program? And perhaps most crucially of all, what type of a music program would be best?

Supt. Quaglia was definitive about his intentions. He says he did not investigate what other schools offered for music education because he was intent upon launching something totally unique and distinctive. “The scope of this came straight out of my head,” he explained.  “I wanted to produce something that was specific to Blue Hills that had our technical stamp on it, that was contemporary, that was different and would generate a high level of interest among our students.”

A music program with a contemporary focus seemed ideal. “Why don’t we go toward the technological end of music because we’re a technical school,” Supt. Quaglia mused. “Let’s do things that are more modern and technologically-oriented. We have the ability to use electric guitars, electronic synthesizers, and even the drums we use are electronic.”

Constructing a music room was next on the agenda. “The space is below the lecture hall,” said Supt. Quaglia, “so it has kind of a natural amphitheater taper to it. I am the one responsible for the layout.” He ran down the list of its features – a large stage along one wall, a tiered area for 30 or so seats, a flat-screen TV, a PA system, and a separate room that can accommodate keyboard-type electronics and digital recording.

The sound produced in this music room by voices and instruments has a particularly lush, rich tone. That characteristic is no accident, explained Supt. Quaglia.

The room was “carefully sound-deadened” through the strategic use of carpet on the risers, rugs, portable baffling panels and a suspended ceiling, creating what he referred to as “a short reverberation at only certain frequencies.”

The project was truly a team effort, Supt. Quaglia pointed out. “This was all done as inexpensively as possible,” he said. “We didn’t have to bring in a lot of sub-contractors. It cost about a quarter of what we would have had to spend if we did.” Several departments and technical programs at Blue Hills contributed their expertise, such as Construction under the direction of Mr. Robert Foley, Electrical under the direction of Mr. William Groh, our Facilities department, and Information Technology and Design & Visual Communications. Supt Quaglia pitched in, too, donating some of his own music equipment and doing much of the setup.

He envisions the room, which he describes as “a labor of love,” fulfilling a dual purpose – being the home base for an after-school music program that allows students to rehearse and perform, plus the site for teaching electives like Music Appreciation, a twelfth-grade course designed to help students enhance their understanding of modern American music.

Next came the issue of who would be teaching the program. Colin Maguire, a Blue Hills student whose father is Blue Hills Regional District School Committee member Aidan G. Maguire, Jr. of Canton, takes music lessons at Senchant’s Art of Teaching in Canton, a company that gives private and group lessons for voice and a number of instruments including guitar, piano and drums.  At the suggestion of Mr. Maguire, a connection was readily formed between Blue Hills’ burgeoning music program and Senchant’s Bernie Birgenheier, a 2002 summa cum laude graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston who teaches guitar and strings.

He and a couple of Senchant’s staff come to Blue Hills twice a week after school from 2:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. to teach students. The program was opened up to any student in grades 9 through 11 who wanted to join (seniors weren’t targeted because the school year was nearly over by the time the music room was completed). “This made a lot of people come out of the woodwork,” Supt. Quaglia commented.  It was something that interested them because my communications to the students was one of eventual inclusiveness of all modern styles.”

There will eventually be a wide range of different ensembles performing contemporary music that the students know and like. For example, the program for the music room’s inaugural concert on June 22 included familiar tunes such as “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley.

“The students and teachers will decide where we go from here,” said Supt. Quaglia. He hinted that in the future, there might be “multi-faceted” music choices – hip hop, jazz, an a cappella vocal group, funk, folk and country, just to name a few possibilities. “When we have more than one ensemble,” Supt. Quaglia said, “you have variety and you can connect with kids in different ways.”

As for whether he would ever consider sitting in on guitar with the Blue Hills student musicians, Supt. Quaglia said, “You have to be careful not to upstage kids. Yeah, I’ve played for a long time, but it’s really about them. During their end-of-year performance, I loved seeing the contented look on their faces.”




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