Six years ago, Nicholas Smith, the former music director and conductor of the South Carolina Philharmonic, found himself on new musical ground. He stood before one of his toughest audiences to date and rapped on the music stand. As the children hushed and their curious eyes focused on him, he wondered if he could pull off what he was about to attempt — performing opera with 7 year olds.
“Susan Yelverton, then the drama teacher at Satchel Ford Elementary School, and I had talked about how the performing arts could be an educational medium as well as a cultural experience for students,” Nicholas says. By close of their next conversation, Nicholas had agreed to work with students at Satchel Ford to create an opera.
“That’s when Susan dropped the bombshell,” he laughs. “I’d be working with the second graders — all of them! I couldn’t imagine how seven-year-olds would manage with the whole concept of opera.”
Seven operas later, Nicholas is still on the podium at Satchel Ford, although he now lives in the English village of Langley. When he’s not creating operas about health, weather and magnets, he serves as the principal conductor of the Huddersfield Philharmonic Orchestra, directs guest concerts and is preparing to open a crêperie with his French partner, Veronique.
Satchel Ford’s long-time music teacher, Ann Perry, is deeply involved in the annual production, held in the spring. “Each year we look at the second grade science standards to come up with a theme for our opera. This year we selected fitness and nutrition,” she says.
Once a theme is in place, Nicholas begins the arduous task of composing an opera from scratch in the fall. “I work on the Dick Goodwin Principle: if the pen isn’t moving you can’t compose. So I set up my computer, and I start by adding a time signature, a key signature, a tempo and the first note,” he says. “After that it usually happens. I write the words as well, and, as a musician, that’s often the most enjoyable part.” Songs in this year’s production included “Daily Exercises,” “Sleep,” “Water” and “Dance When You Can.”
“In January, Mr. Smith comes to the school and introduces the music to the students,” says Ann. “He also meets with the art, dance, drama and music teachers to decide on costumes, choreography, music order and the story that ties everything together.”
When Nicholas returns to England, the school’s teachers keep the production humming. “I teach the songs to the students, and the dance teacher choreographs and begins teaching the dances,” says Ann. “The drama teacher works with the students to create choral poems they will perform during the opera, and the visual arts teacher guides the children in creating and painting their costumes.”
A week before the show, Nicholas returns to the United States to help the teachers and students refine the production. The students then stage two full performances — one for fellow students and another for second grade parents — supported by Nicholas, Ann on piano, and a cellist.
Principal Connie Derrick believes arts education, like opera, is essential to education. “When I first started my career, the school where I taught only offered music lessons every two weeks for 30 minutes,” she says. “Here, we are much more fortunate. Richland School District One values the arts and has been very supportive.”
Both Ann and Connie have a front row seat to the many benefits of incorporating the arts within an educational curriculum. “Academic learning is often about spatial concepts and patterns,” says Connie. “The arts reinforce those academic concepts in a different way. Students learn so much through the arts. With music, students practice reading fluency and thinking skills, learn rhythm, rhyme, timing and work on enunciation.”
The opera, notes Ann, also opens children to new avenues of learning. “Math and English Language Arts teach you how to earn a living,” she says. “The arts teach you how to make a life and enjoy it.”
Ann also sees how success in the arts can fuel progress in other subject areas. “Students participating in the arts often display unique abilities and potential not revealed in other settings. The arts create new opportunities for success to students who may not be performing well in other subjects,” she says.
Connie notes that the original opera brought the first cast a unique opportunity. “Nicholas took our production to the school where he lives in England,” she says. “Our children, who had performed the opera here, got to watch a live broadcast of the English children performing their opera. Then the children got to speak to each other and ask questions. It was such a wonderful experience for them.”
The opera is funded primarily through state grant money. Since 2004, the South Carolina Arts Commission has recognized Satchel Ford as an Arts in Basic Curriculum school. Satchel Ford is also a six-time recipient of the S.C. State Department of Education’s Distinguished Arts Program grant. Supportive school-based groups, including the Brave Arts booster organization and PTO, supplement the grant funds.
This year’s performance is a milestone for Connie and Ann. Both educators are retiring at the end of the school year.
Connie still recalls the day Nicholas first stood before the second graders. “I remember his standing up at the music stand tap-tap-tapping his baton,” she laughs. “The kids just looked at him. They’d never seen anything like that before.”
Ann proudly recalls how the school’s music program has grown beyond simply providing classroom music in 1989. “Now we have seven yearly musical theatre productions, opportunities to sing in chorus, audition for district and state level choirs, play tone chimes and learn to play recorder and harmonica, as well as many other musical options for students.”
The opera has also been an education for Nicholas, who wondered if 7 year olds could even grasp the concept of an opera. “I seriously underestimated them,” he says. “And year after year, they seem capable of more and more.”