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Karen Rile

When School Makes Life Impossible for a Young Musician

September 11, 2014 22:36

Photo courtesy of Kate Patterson and The Washington Post
Photo courtesy of Kate Patterson and The Washington Post

A few days ago the blogosphere erupted in outrage over a Washington Post column about a gifted young musician who was charged with truancy—even though she maintained a straight-A average—because she missed ten days of seventh grade.

Thirteen-year-old Avery Gagliano is a bit of a phenom. She performed on From The Top at ten and went on to win international competitions all the while keeping up her schoolwork at Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C., which is known as one of best public schools in the city. Nonetheless, Avery's ten absences were deemed "unexcused" by school authorities, despite a built-in loophole that gives administrators latitude to excuse absences for unusual circumstances

"Avery Gagliano is piano royalty being treated like a criminal," said From The Top host Chris O'Riley, in a public Facebook post, one of the many iterations of the story that appeared this week on social media.

Avery's parents appealed to the school district, submitting a portfolio of her musical achievements, including international appearances and competitions, plus an independent study plan for days that she might miss during future touring. But they were rebuffed and their daughter was declared "chronically truant". Backed against the wall, Avery's frustrated parents reluctantly withdrew their daughter from Deal Middle School. This year, she'll be homeschooled.

Say what you will: the D.C. school district was being rigid, unfair, mindless, inept, overwrought, dysfunctional, whatever. The fact is, public education in the US is an entitlement, but our right is to a basic education; we don't get to dictate the particulars. Public school systems are decentralized, so the scenario and the rules can vary drastically, even from city to neighboring suburbs. Because they lived in that particular district, Avery drew a short stick.

A few years ago, in my own city, I had an experience like the Gaglianos—slapped with a truancy summons—goody-two-shoes me, who rarely gets a parking ticket!—when my 9th grade violinist missed too many days of school, despite her excellent GPA. If we'd lived a few miles away in the suburbs, our kids would have enjoyed an entirely different public education experience in a well-funded, manicured school that would have put them on the "pre-professional" track and allowed them time for practice and rehearsals, and to make up work missed during travel, exactly as Avery's parents had sensibly proposed. But, tough luck, the way the dice rolled we didn't get that opportunity. And, like Avery's parents, we had to deal with it.

Life is short; childhood is shorter. Sometimes you have to shift gears to support your kid. Like Avery's parents, we couldn't afford to send our daughter to a private high school where her needs for practicing and travel would be accommodated. So we cobbled out a solution. In my daughter's case, this was a charter cyber school. That's right: she transferred from the highest-ranked urban public magnet school to an internet-based school. When I told my friends what we'd decided I could hear their jaws dropping across the phone connection. How could we pass up the best public school in Pennsylvania in favor of cyber school—and, was cyber education even legit?

But you do what you have to. Life was impossible in her old school, and there was no way, in the short time of her childhood, we could make it different.

And, you know what? It was okay. It was pretty good, even. Our daughter had a different high school experience than we'd thought she would. Instead of AP Chem, she had regular chemistry. And she learned it. She participated in online discussion boards where she had to engage in civil debate with kids whose basic assumptions about science, religion, and ethics were completely different from that of anyone she knew. And that's an education: stepping out far from one's comfortable nest of like-minded peers. As I often tell my kids, sometimes the most valuable lessons aren't even on the syllabus.

Cyber school was lonely, often. She had her sisters, of course, and her musician friends at pre-college. Her old school friends kept in touch, but as my daughter delved deeper into the professional music world, she had less and less time and energy for dances and parties. Life is about choices and compromise; at this point in her education, as a first-year grad student, she is well glad she made the decision to leave her public school when she did.

Bonus: it's character-building, if painful, to feel like an outlier sometimes. You get stronger when you're not always nurtured and appreciated for doing your best. Given our druthers, of course, we'd all choose to be coddled and supported. But the real world doesn't work like that. If you want to make a living in a tough industry like classical music, you need to be tough. When my daughter's school gave her the cold shoulder and sent us seeking out educational alternatives, our family got an off-the-syllabus schooling that tuition couldn't buy.


[Addendum: It's come to light that the DC Public School District has issued a statement refuting the report by Washington Post writer Petula Dvorak. According to School District officials, the truancy citation was auto-generated by a computer program when Avery reached ten absences, and the family was advised to ignore the letter, and that the issue would not escalate further. "We are very proud of Avery’s accomplishments throughout her entire educational career as a DC public school student, and we are hopeful that her parents will enroll her back at her back at Deal Middle School soon," says the press release.]

[Second Addendum: Read Petula Dvorak's detailed response to the School District's press release.]

6 replies

Poor Yorick and the Viola: Melissa Dunphy’s iHamlet opens at the Philly Fringe

September 4, 2014 23:20

iHamlet: Melissa Dunphy
Actor/composer/violist Melissa Dunphy stars in iHamlet, Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre

Every September my city, Philadelphia, belies a stodgy reputation and throws its heart and soul into an edgy two-week all-arts (dance, theater, visual arts, music and spoken-word) festival we call Philly Fringe. The festival, now in its 19th year, inspired by the Edinburgh, Scotland Fringe Festival, is one of many that take place all over North America in late summer and early fall. Here in Philly, the most interesting and innovative performances of the year happen during the Fringe.

This season's no exception. Among the most eagerly anticipated is Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre's production of iHamlet, South African playwright Robin Malan's 2010 one-actor distillation of Shakespeare's play. And, in typical Fringe-forward creative casting, director David O'Connor has placed Australian-born actor/composer/musician Melissa Dunphy, Philadelphia's resident all-arts phenom, in the title role as Hamlet.

Oh, did I mention that Melissa, in addition to being an award-winning, nationally recognized and totally exciting young composer and one of our city's finest Shakespearian actors, is also a violist?


The other day while perusing some advance photos of the show, which opens this Sunday, I noticed a still life image of Melissa's Luis and Clark carbon fiber viola artfully arranged next to poor Yorick's scull. Intrigued, I contacted Melissa to find out if she were planning to play her viola during the performance.

And she said yes. I asked her to explain the thinking behind the choice to play viola throughout the performance.

"Robin Malan's script calls for some singing, specifically, the What a piece of work is man quotes from its setting in the musical Hair," says Melissa. "I realized it would work better if I could accompany myself on something like a mandolin or mandola.

"Of course, I'd just got my Luis and Clark viola recently, and it's so beautiful and black and begging to be shown off as often as possible. So my first suggestion was to use that and strum it. The director, David O'Connor, then immediately suggested that I play the viola at the top of the show in the first tableau. The rest of the musical interjections grew organically out of that.

"I love that my baby is in the show with me! It's a one-person show, but having my viola with me makes me feel like there's another character on stage. And honestly, it looks exactly like the kind of instrument this particular Hamlet would play.

"The viola in the show is what Hamlet turns to in moments of introspection, when he's trying to calm himself or sort through his feelings. And then during the play-within-a-play, it provides the diegetic music.

"The viola is often considered a melancholy instrument, which is perfect for Hamlet's melancholia. In the recorded music, it makes the sound of the ghost's appearances, which is full of screeches and harmonics and spooky noises."

34-year-old Dunphy was catapulted into the national spotlight four years ago during the 2010 Philly Fringe Festival when, as a first-year PhD student in the University of Pennsylvania's music composition program, she produced the debut performance of The Gonzales Cantata,  a 40-minute choral work written in what she calls “pop neo-Baroque” style. Scored for harpsichord, and chamber orchestra, the cantata is based on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Rachel Maddow called it "probably the coolest thing you will ever see on this show."

Since then Melissa's award-winning works, including Tesla's Pigeon, a song cycle for soprano and orchestra and What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?, a choral setting of excerpts of public testimony given before the Maine Senate by WWII veteran Phillip Spooner in a hearing to discuss the Marriage Equality Bill on April 22, 2009, have been performed nationally. Currently, she's finishing up an opera about the sex life of Ayn Rand as narrated by Alan Greenspan.

During the past few years, Melissa has been on a self-imposed hiatus from film and theater projects in order to concentrate on composing and music performance (she plays regularly in her noise-pop duo, Up Your Cherry, with her husband, musician and web developer Matt Dunphy). And that's too bad for the theater community. Dunphy, hailed by Philadelphia Inquirer as "unquestionably the city's leading Shakespeare ingénue", is one of those once-in-a-century talents who burns bright everywhere she points.

Well, she's back. iHamlet runs September 7th through 14th at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. Tickets are $25 with some discounts for students and seniors. Shakespeare and viola. iS there anything more delicious? iDon't think so. We have tickets for next Saturday.

iHamlet: Melissa Dunphy

-->Meanwhile, here's a bonus for Violinist.com readers:

Last week, after I published an essay on Busking for Life, Melissa sent me a link to her own blog post on busking, which contains seven very practical must-read tips. Read it here on her blog.

Photo credits: Kendall Whitehouse on Flickr

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