St. James Academy: In Tune with Students’ Innate Need and Ability to Perform

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Ample research demonstrates the multiple benefits that regular exposure to music education provides for children of all ages: improved attention, memory, focus, auditory and memory skills, and overall cognition. Yet, too often, budget cuts squeeze music education funding, forcing schools to pare down or eliminate music classes altogether for school-aged children. St. James Academy in Monkton, however, is bucking this trend. In recent years, their music and performance arts offerings have increased in number and scope due to the quality of the St. James program, creating life-long music enthusiasts and confident performers.

Much of the credit for St. James’ strong performing arts program stems from a supportive administration and extensively trained faculty who not only teach but also perform professionally. Director of Performing Arts and vocal music teacher Randi Martin, who holds a master’s degree in music education from Loyola University, a certification in YogaVoice® Technique, and additional training in the Alexander Technique, Vocal-Cross Training, Orff, and Gordon Music Learning Theory, sees the performing arts as much more than a dispensable academic elective. At St. James, the extensive performing arts program includes courses in dance/movement, Orff for percussionists, wind and string instruction, plus three musicals.

Martin does her best to make sure that every one of her students has the opportunity to perform. She teaches vocal music to students in grades 4 through 8, an age range when many students begin to become self-conscious and more inhibited around their peers. This presents a challenge to any music teacher, yet Martin welcomes this by using healthy practices including YogaVoice® intensive training in her classes.

“I started to see the genesis of that stuff [personal insecurities] in my students,” Martin says. Fortunately, she knows how to recognize and help reverse it. She sees it in her students who shuffle their feet awkwardly side to side while on stage, or who sing with a collapsed chest, shoulders rolled forward. These gestures, Martin explains, correspond directly to students’ self-perception and the physical sensations that accompany these thoughts and feelings. Is the audience going to like me? Do my friends think I sound good? What happens if my voice cracks? “It’s these types of thoughts that can paralyze students,” says Martin, whose teaching style supports students’ confidence and helps them access their ability.

Martin’s enthusiasm for music education has proven infectious among scores of her students. Parent testimonials, like this one, abound: “The St. James theatre program has been a vital part of my son, Joey’s life. I believe he found his inspiration and enthusiasm watching the middle school plays as a lower school student. He observed how much fun the cast would have on stage along with the camaraderie between them. These performances are simply amazing!” states Christie Grant, a former St. James Academy parent.

St. James’ music education begins in PreK, taught by Cindy Miller, when students learn about opposites in music as they develop a basic understanding of dynamics, tempo, form, melody, and rhythm. “We learn about the expressive elements of music and how the dynamics and tempo make us feel. Music class is very hands-on, engaging every child and meeting the needs of a wide variety of learning styles,” said Miller. New to the program this year are the ukeleles. Beginning in third grade, students learn to accompany others after learning various chords on the ukelele.

By fourth grade, the instruction focuses more on developing mind/body connections and an awareness of the physical sensations of singing. Students also receive Vocal Cross Training, which keeps the voice flexible for making various timbres. Alongside their vocal music instruction, middle-grade students also learn instrumental music taught by Donald Wolcott. “Learning an instrument at a young age accelerates neural development in many ways including executive functioning, memory, multitasking, and spatial coordination. It stimulates all the same areas of the brain that learning a language does, with the addition of developing creative skills and physical coordination,” said Wolcott. This carefully structured sequence allows students to advance from recorders and bells to trombone or guitar.

What’s truly exciting for Martin isn’t just the arts program that students receive at St. James. Rather, it’s that they continue to perform after graduation. Many graduates land leading roles in high school plays; some even form bands and play in local venues. Post-highschool, a few have begun music careers that include recordings and extensive live performances throughout the East Coast.

“Our kids are really getting out there,” Martin says. “That’s the goal. It’s bigger than here. This is something you do for the good of the world.”

St. James Academy in Monkton welcomes the public to its upcoming performance arts productions: 4th-8th grade production of Matilda: Dec. 6th and 7th at 6:30 pm and Dec. 8th at 2 p.m.; Middle school Winter Concert Dec. 11th at 7 pm; All-school Talent Show: Jan. 24th at 6:30 pm.

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