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Performing Arts Shine On at John Jay High School

CROSS RIVER, N.Y.  – If you think the musical taste of today’s teen is all about Lady Gaga and rappers like Jay Z and Lil Wayne, you haven’t talked to some of the students at John Jay High School lately.

The school has become a bastion for the performing arts with about 36 percent of the student body enrolled in one of the classes.

One of the program’s shining jewels is the John Jay Jazz Vocal Ensemble. In its 10th year, the group has been competing for past seven years at the Berklee College of Music’s High School Jazz Festival in Boston. Last year, it had its best showing.

“We finished fourth out of 16 groups in the large school division,” said Steve Morse, the instructional leader in performing arts at John Jay, where he teaches string and symphony orchestra, the chorale group and leads the Jazz Vocal Ensemble.

Morse said jazz is an “American idiom,” and the Ensemble helps introduce students to such artists as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday – artists they’re not likely to hear on their favorite radio station.

“It’s a great way to teach the kids the art, and the art of singing through that medium,” Morse said.

Many of the students in the Vocal Jazz Ensemble, which has nearly 30 members, are also in the chorale group. The exposure helps them to develop a more eclectic musical taste.

“I find that when kids come into the chorale, the great composers like Beethoven and Mozart become part of their vocabulary,” he said. “The school is so steeped in tradition the kids are aware of what kids in the other groups prefer.”

Lucas Spain, a student in both the chorale and Vocal Jazz Ensemble, admitted that the program has altered his musical tastes.

“Instead of Jay Z, I find myself singing madrigals in the shower,” he said with a laugh.

The chorale, along with the symphony orchestra, recently performed Brahms’ Requiem in German at Avery Fisher Hall in New York.

“It was an incredible experience for the kids,” Morse said. “But we are not here to create virtuosos. We’re here to give the kids a well-rounded education. Performing in these groups makes them a more responsible citizen of the world. It teaches self-discipline, collaborative decision making, and making and setting goals.”

Lauren Ciubotaru, who performs with both the chorale group and the Vocal Jazz Ensemble, said being in the musical groups has opened her eyes and her ears.

“It’s given me more of appreciation of what good music is,” she said. “It’s great to learn and explore.”

Members of the Jazz Vocal Ensemble agree with their teacher. Being part of the group means working together and developing a sense of teamwork.

“It’s all about being able to work well in a group” said Keely Bochicchio-Sipos. “We have to have a good relationship within the group. It’s become pretty close-knit.”

Jazz Vocal Ensemble member Charles Perrone agreed: “In vocal jazz, it’s not about one particular person,” he said. “It’s about the whole group.”

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