May 24, 2023

PSO Program Encourages Students to “Listen Up!” and Express Themselves

CREATIVE RESPONSE: The painting “Waves of the Shore” by seventh grade artist Sally Siliba, a student at St. Paul School of Princeton, is among the artwork and creative writing on display as part of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s “BRAVO! Listen Up! Exhibition” at the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts through June 6. 

By Wendy Greenberg

When the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) performed a world premiere this past March, 23 middle school students were in the audience. While they all heard the same piece, their reactions, reflected in visual art and writing, were vastly different.

The BRAVO! ListenUp! program encourages personal reactions. “It’s wonderful to see all the different interpretations when everyone heard the same thing,” said Pauline Swiatocha, who teaches English and history at the Ranney School in Tinton Falls.

Her seventh grade students are among those who participated in the PSO’s immersive program, the fruits of which are on display in the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon Street, in the second floor Solley Lobby Gallery through June 6.

Students from three schools, which include St. Paul School of Princeton, and Cambridge School of Pennington, as well as Ranney, first attended a workshop with William Harvey, composer of the work, The Seven Decisions of Ghandi, a concerto for violin and orchestra. The piece was written in 2020 and dedicated to Gandhi’s granddaughter Ela on her 80th birthday. Back at their respective schools during the next few weeks, the students worked with their teachers to create their artistic responses.

In the gallery, visitors can find written responses and artwork.

A Ranney School seventh grader created a colored pencil drawing of composer Harvey, and the subject, Gandhi, as one person playing the violin. “The seven fingers playing the violin symbolizes the seven movements and seven decision of Gandhi,” he wrote in his artist’s statement.

A sixth grader at The Cambridge School painted an acrylic on canvas representation of what she pictured as Gandhi’s “eighth decision.” She used eight streams of color — seven representing the decisions depicted in the piece, and the last representing “our chance to help the world.”

A St. Paul School seventh grader created a beach image using paint, sand and shells that were inspired by the peaceful feelings she found in the music.

A Ranney School seventh grader wrote that “the piece gave me optimism and faith that the world in which we live will continue to evolve, but hopefully for the better.”

“I’m always so impressed,” said Katie Miller, PSO’s manager of education and community engagement, who said the program was developed distinctly for middle school students. In the original PSO BRAVO! program, musicians go right into the classrooms of second to fifth graders to play music. “When this project was originally conceived (in 2007), we were looking for more ways to involve middle school students,” she said. “We didn’t have anything for middle school. Middle school students are experiencing a lot emotionally at that age, and they are really learning to express themselves.”

The Listen Up! program is “perfect” for middle schoolers,” Miller said. “The seemingly small decisions they make will shape who they become.” In fact, the program notes state that the piece “takes as its premise that we are defined by our decisions.”

Harvey’s new work, which the PSO premiered March 11 and 12, chronicles the major moments of Mahatma Gandhi’s life through music. When the students met with Harvey prior to the concert, they heard about his musical inspirations before using the piece as their own inspirations. Harvey, who posed for photos with the students, has written over 50 works and is also a professional violinist, concertmaster of Mexico’s National Symphony Orchestra. and professor at the Universidad Panamericana. He played the violin in the PSO performance, which was conducted by Sameer Patel.

Among Gandhi’s life events depicted in the piece are his decision to move to study in London at age 18; his reading of John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, which he has said transformed him; and his last decision, his march of 240 miles in 1929, rejoining the fight for self-rule, leading to India’s independence 17 years later. In the piece, the students heard instruments not often heard in orchestral works, the Hindustani tabla and the sitar.

Swiatocha said her students participated in Listen Up! at another school, and she asked for it to continue at Ranney. She had asked her students to take notes on the piece, because the responses are “reactive.”

“It provides a wonderful experience and takes them out of their comfort zone,” she said. “It’s a great enrichment activity and promotes enjoyment of the arts. They don’t have to worry about a grade. It provides enrichment, creativity, and enjoyment, and the students see their work at the opening reception (which was on May 16).”

Ranney art teacher Madeleine McCarthy said she played the piece again for her students, and “asked them to close their eyes and put their heads down, to filter out the visual noise, and allow the realization — the visual response.

“They sketch things out, in the design phase, and think about it. The mental image comes alive on paper. They work on it for a couple of weeks, and I help and critique, but it is a self-guided process. It’s their own.”

“The kids love it,” said McCarthy. So do the teachers. “It’s so out of the box. It’s great to see what they come up with.”