SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ – Choir students from Scotch Plains-Fanwood are lending their voices for a collaborative effort to celebrate 'music in our schools.'

Last week, borough fifth through eighth graders joined with their counterparts from South Plainfield for a 'Sound of My Heart' virtual field trip.

"This is an opportunity for two school districts to come together," said Shannon Maddolin, co-choral director and general music teacher at South Plainfield's Grant School, at the launch of the four-hour program.

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"Today's goal is for us to work together and come to an understanding of how different forms of communication can be used to create and express music for those who have different skill sets; how those who communicate, hear or see differently can all come together and perform together and still perform that same piece of music."

The idea for the virtual musical field trip, which took place via Zoom, was that of Maddolin who, last year discussed with Jennifer Jenkins, choral director and general music teacher at Park Middle School, the concept of joining forces to create an opportunity to expand the choral community.

Along with Katherine Haughwout, choral director at South Plainfield Middle School, and Joan Stasio, co-choral director and orchestra director at Grant School, they developed a project that honors different forms of musical performances and expressions as well as builds connections across these two communities.

"With everything going on in the world, this is an opportunity for us to get creative, have a little fun and help build community at a time when we can't get together. The perfect way to do that is to bring students with common interests together and engage them to create what they love and perform what they enjoy," said Maddolin. "With virtual learning creating so many limitations, we decided it was time to expand and break those limits. Singing is the perfect opportunity to build connections with students from other schools and towns with something we all love."

During the Jan. 13 event, students from Grant School, South Plainfield Middle School, and Park Middle School joined together for a presentation from American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter Jennifer Coletta. Students learned how deaf students experience, learn, and perform music. They were also taught some basic ASL. 

"[Not everyone experiences and performs music in the traditional way that is presented in our schools," said Maddolin. "We wanted to provide our students the opportunity to begin to understand that music is presented and experienced in an array of different forms and is not limited to just the voice in a traditional choral setting."

Since Zoom or Google Meet do not have the capability to sing or play in real time, sign language, said Jenkins, is a wonderful way for students to 'immerse themselves into not only the melody of a piece of music, but to experience the words and story on multiple levels.' "We are excited for the opportunity to expose our students to various forms of musical communication," she said.

Though the virtual field trip, students also had the opportunity to build upon their foundational vocal skills and techniques, rehearsing in sections and collaborating with music educators other than their classroom teachers. They will also get to know one another through fun community-building activities and icebreakers.

Over the next month and a half, students will work with their classroom music teachers on the piece they were introduced to during the field trip and come together, virtually, as part a 230-plus person choir. Their performances will be showcased to the community in March in celebration of 'Music in Our Schools' month.

"Holding this virtual field trip in January provides students ample time to practice and hone their work so they can put forth a performance that they are proud to present in celebration of Music in Our Schools month," said Haughwout.

"In honor of this celebration, we are building this choir and this community of students to show and reflect that, even though we are in different schools and in different towns, music education across the world is super important," Maddolin said in a video message explaining details of the program to parents. 

Participation in the Jan. 13 program was voluntary with 130 South Plainfield fifth through eighth grade chorus students taking part. According to Jenkins, at a time when most students across both districts are learning remotely, the event offers a 'new and innovative way to keep the arts alive.'

"The arts have been affected and limited in what we can do safely together. Chorus is a group activity where the benefits are felt the strongest when we sing together in the same room at the same time," said Jenkins. "With our limitations, we look for other ways to build relationships, make connections within various communities, and continue to develop musical skills."

According to Stasio, while South Plainfield choir students in sixth through eighth grade have worked on other similar music projects since last March when virtual learning began, 'this experience is even more beneficial because it involves a larger community effort.'

"The one thing that is lacking during virtual learning is the opportunity for collaboration and the students to interact with other musicians and singers. If we can’t perform together live, then recording our parts is the next best option," Stasio said. "It requires the student to acquire new skill sets - such as recording, using a mic, listening etc. - and it requires hours of editing work from the teachers."

"The skills students learn in a live classroom setting can be challenging to emulate through virtual settings on limited schedules; holding events like this can help students really focus on their skill set…and lessons learned throughout and compile together," added Maddolin. "We hope that students will understand that all students are capable of experiencing music within their own abilities in a valuable way."