In January of 2007 when Gary Bernice took the reigns of The Springfield (Massachusetts) High School of Science & Technology Band, it was a rag-tag group of 20 students from a crime-ridden city with the sixth highest poverty rate in the nation.
Today the "Sci-Tech" Band is known as The Pride of Springfield and has nearly 500 members, with a resume that includes hundreds of performances at community music fests, benefit concerts, fireworks celebrations, international fairs, scholarship dinners, inauguration ceremonies, as well as nursing homes. In fact, this Friday at the John M. Greene Hall at Smith College in Northampton, the band will again be working with senior citizens -- this time, sharing the stage with the world-renowned Young@Heart Chorus, whose members are all over the tender age of 73. The Second Annual Intergeneration Mashup will also involve the fabled Hyde Park Choir from Chicago and The Hampshire Young People’s Chorus.
This all-ages collaboration will be the second for Bernice and his troupe. Last year’s "Mashup" was a memorable night for everyone involved that grew out of a chance meeting with Y@H’s Director Bob Cilman, according to Bernice. "Both Bob and I were presented with a New England Public Radio Arts and Humanity Award, on the same night. Both of our groups performed and that was the first time we met each other. From there, Bob said ‘We just need to do something together -- an intergenerational concert.
The 2013 collaboration also involved the PS 22 Elementary School Chorus from Staten Island. The resulting show (clips are available on Youtube) was a career highpoint as well as a recruiting tool for Bernice. "It was the highlight of my eight years here. We had a lot of students join us last year, but we had even more join this year. ... This energy that was fed into our program because of that performance -- to do it again, is a dream come true.
"The exciting thing was being able to see people at all different ages sharing something in common. We had elementary school students perform, we had high school students perform, we had Young@Heart perform, and then we all performed together. These groups, of all different ages connecting through music, was truly spectacular. I have never experienced anything quite like it."
The show culminated with all of the groups coming together for an astonishing version of Bob Dylan’s "Forever Young."
At a time where under-performing urban schools have been forced to cut expressive arts programs, the Sci-Tech Band is a shining example of the power of connection through music. "The unique thing about the Sci-Tech band is that 99 percent of our students had never played a musical instrument before coming to the high school," explained Bernice. "They start from scratch. To go from zero to something amazing, to be able to perform with professional musicians on a professional stage"
Bernice was particularly proud that members of his advanced band, which is the one that is playing with Young@Heart, are twice as likely to graduate than their peers. "The Sci-Tech band movement is not just music, but music and beyond. Students can see that if they can be successful here, they can be successful anywhere.
Bernice acknowledged that the Intergenerational Mashup will certainly be a stretch for his students. And he believes that is exactly what they need. "We were not going to play a watered-down version of the songs to make it easy. Even though they’ve been playing for only one, two, or three years, they are able to play professional charts and that level. It is such a challenge, but it is what our students need. They thrive on going above and beyond. And they are going to prove it on Friday night. I want people to see and hear that anything is possible."
John M. Greene Hall is located at 70 Elm St. Northampton. The show begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children, available at www.academyofmusictheatre.tix.com or by calling 413-584-9032, ext. 105.
Dave Madeloni writes a music column for Ovation. He can be reached at email@example.com.