Most musicians will say that music has the power to unify people and strengthen a community.
Some would say that St. Louis could use more of that right now.
Students from Duchesne High School in St. Charles and Trinity Catholic High School in north St. Louis County witnessed music's unifying potential when the two archdiocesan high schools came together for a somewhat impromptu choir and band performance.
Students from Trinity Catholic arrived at Duchesne early in the morning on Sept. 19. With sheet music they'd received about a month prior, they quickly set up in two areas — the band in the performing arts center and the choir in several of the music/theater rooms. They had exactly three-and-a-half hours to practice — this was their one and only practice together — before an all-school assembly.
No pressure at all. They had the professionals to harness their talents into a respectable performance: Pam Grooms, professor and director of choral activities at Lindenwood University led the choir; and Gary Brandes, professor and director of bands at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, guided the band.
Kay Johnson, Duchesne's director of performing arts, and Carmen Rose, Trinity Catholic's choir and band director, hatched the idea at a choir rehearsal for the NCEA convention last April.
"We were just chit-chatting, and I said, 'Hey would you appreciate getting together with us, because I would love to have that happen,'" Johnson said.
The premise was strength in numbers. In Johnson's 10 years at Duchesne, the band hadn't topped about two dozen students. An ideal band would have about 22 clarinets, 10 flutes, 15 trumpets and so on, but some high schools aren't afforded that luxury.
When a score is chosen for their bands, Johnson and Rose often grapple with filling all of the positions, especially those middle sounds, such as the French horn. Trinity Catholic's band has to get creative in covering those parts, Rose said, including simulating the sounds of an oboe or bassoon on the keyboard.
"As a band director you always want your kids to have the best experience that they can have," Johnson said. "To provide the opportunity for my younger musicians to perform in a full band setting, it's really important to me."
But as students described, coming together meant this was also an opportunity to get to know one another better, beyond their interactions in sports. Steven Berry, who stuck around to work on his bass riffs during lunch, said he was surprised "in a good way" when he learned about the joint effort.
"I thought it would be good for both of our schools, because we've have a little bit of history in the past, and for our bands to come together like this and cooperate with each other and be better together, it's a good experience," said Berry, a sophomore at Trinity Catholic who plays bass and drums.
"By doing this, it helps us build relationships with our own students but Duchesne students as well," said Berry, the great-nephew of the late rock and roll musician Chuck Berry. "Music brings people together — period."
Back in the choir room, Pam Grooms warmed up her students by walking through a few lines from "America the Beautiful."
"We're going to sing, 'And crown thy good with brotherhood,'" she told them. "That's what today is all about and that's what music is all about — it's bringing people together, right?"
Grooms shared how she'd seen a small marching band that showed up at one of the recent protests in St. Louis. Their presence, she said, seemed to increase the calm and peacefulness of the environment.
"Music calms their souls," she said. "If we would focus more on crowning our good with brotherhood, then maybe we wouldn't have to be frightened or there wouldn't be so much injustice. You guys are the ones who are going to have to help us — because clearly the 'old people' haven't done a very good job of it, have we?"
One of the band's selections, "Yorkshire Ballad," allowed them to slow down and listen to the various parts. Duchesne senior John DiFatta, an alto saxophonist, said playing music allows for flexibility in interpretation and supports balance. "You choose what story you're telling," he said. "Individually we rise, but together we stand together and we can conquer."