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Queens teacher shares lifelong experience as writer, composer to help students ‘rise up’
by Dorothy Callaci | June 27, 2013 New York Teacher issue
Sticks fly as the 8th-grade drummers pick up the tempo and move from a double-stroke roll to a buzz roll.
“Louder, faster,” music teacher Shanan Estreicher says encouragingly. “Remember, you want to scare them.”
For the moment, these 8th-graders from PS/IS 127 in East Elmhurst are transformed into a medieval army marching across the plain to engage the enemy. But first there was boot camp.
Class began with a discussion of drumming in classical music, hip-hop and African chants. Then, Estreicher cited examples of drumming in movies and its use in battle scenes. Before long, with a reminder that it’s all about stick control, the students were on the march and striking fear into the hearts of the enemy.
With the change of class, the tempo and instrumentation toned down and sweetened. Fifth-graders filed in and the talk turned to spirituals and blues, religious songs and sad songs, and slavery’s effect on music. Before the class began playing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” on recorders from music notations on a screen at the front of the room, Estreicher set the scene.
“The music shouldn’t sound happy and bright. Express a little sadness but don’t start crying,” he advised.
As the group plays their recorders, Estreicher signals for more instrumentation and the class adds maracas, bongos, a tambourine and a xylophone to finish up with what he praises as “an awesome, rock-star ending.”
The kids love it, and so does he.
Estreicher has shared his lifelong engagement with music with 600 youngsters in 20 classes weekly for seven years at PS/IS 127.
“It gives me the opportunity to give something to kids they wouldn’t get otherwise, something to carry with them,” he said.
A graduate of the Mannes School of Music, which he attended on scholarship starting at age 7, and the Manhattan School of Music and Queens College, Estreicher is also a classical and pop-song writer and composer who has created incidental music for plays, films and television.
He brings all that experience to his mixed chorus of 6th- through 8th-graders who are featured in a new documentary movie about the process of learning and rehearsing a song and recording it in a professional studio. The film premiered at the school at a red-carpet ceremony in April.
The song featured in the film, “Rise Up and Sing,” written by Estreicher, is about rising above life’s difficulties and using your voice for change. That the link to the film, riseupandsingthemovie.com, got 3,000 hits following the premiere is important to him because he sees the film as “a tool to promote music education,” something he is passionate about.
Estreicher brimmed with praise for the way his chorus singers “stuck it out and never complained” throughout 18 months of preparations, rehearsals and fundraising. Contributions from the community, colleagues and an online financing campaign on Kickstarter raised $4,500 to pay for the studio, professional musicians and other costs.
Many of the same students were part of this year’s chorus that won silver in the annual New York State School Music Association competition on June 4. Estreicher considers the work of the chorus both a learning and an aesthetic experience.
“They learn to feel comfortable about expressing themselves and learn how to focus and listen as part of an ensemble so they don’t predominate and drown others out,” he said.
The next class in Estreicher’s day is all about keyboards, with 6th-graders learning rhythm and how to read music.
When it was time to play the keyboards, Estreicher began the warm-up: “Right hand only, add the left and eyeball to the next measure of the second line for smoothness.” Then the ensemble piece began with a last reminder: “Focus and keep everything working, hands and eyes.”
Although Estreicher meets his students only once a week, he works with them throughout their middle school years so he gets to know them well. He makes sure that they become familiar with the vocabulary of music and know musical notation, how to listen, analyze and play, how to enjoy and appreciate music and even how to compose music to express their feelings.
“Shanan has reinvigorated the music program,” said PS/IS 127 Chapter Leader Noel Warshaw. “He has infused the kids with such enthusiasm.”