Music is key at Niskayuna, Shenendehowa

Violinists Kalyana Duggal, left, a senior, and junior Samantha Liu are stand partners in the Niskayuna High School Chamber Orchestra. (Geraldine Freedman/For The Daily Gazette)Violinists Kalyana Duggal, left, a senior, and junior Samantha Liu are stand partners in the Niskayuna High School Chamber Orchestra. (Geraldine Freedman/For The Daily Gazette)

BY GERALDINE FREEDMAN/For The Daily Gazette

There was a time not so long ago when school districts dropped their arts programs to balance their budgets. But at two local high schools, music is thriving.

“We’ve very fortunate,” said Eric Hughes, the acting director of music education for Niskayuna’s Central School District. “The budget gets tight, but we’ve never lost any of our ensembles. There’s never been a threat to lose or diminish our programs.

“In fact, the program traditionally has always expanded. The expectation in the community is that we have a full arts program because it’s essential to have a rounded education, especially in the arts.”

At Shenendehowa Central School District, Frank Rosselli, the district’s academic administrator for fine arts, has experienced similar conditions.

“The music and art programs are viewed as necessary and important as evidenced by continued budget support, our diverse program of studies and excellent concert attendance,” he said in an email. “The parents and families .. . provide the type of support integral for a thriving program.”

Friends of music

These parental networks or “Friends of Music,” are in both districts and provide scholarships, recognitions and financial support beyond what district budgets can. It would come as no surprise then, to discover that at Niskayuna there are 12 ensembles including five different vocal groups that involve 407 students or about 26 percent out of a high school population of about 1,400 students. And this year, courses in music technology were added to those of music theory.

At Shen, 777 students out of 3,190 or about 26 percent of the student body in the high school participate in 17 different ensembles, which includes five different choral groups and five different bands. There are also sections of music for students with special needs and courses in music theory.

Individual lessons are given by the music faculty, although many students who are more serious seek private lessons with local professional musicians and some attend summer programs at Tanglewood Music Center or with the Orchestral Studies Program at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Most students own their instruments, usually by high school, Rosselli said, but the district can provide use of the more expensive or less accessible instruments like bass clarinet, baritone saxophone or tuba.

Junior Anne Moruzzi, left, plays bassoon — and other instruments — and junior Sarah Nichols plays viola at Shenendehowa High School. (Geraldine Freedman/For The Daily Gazette)

Junior Anne Moruzzi, left, plays bassoon — and other instruments — and junior Sarah Nichols plays viola at Shenendehowa High School. (Geraldine Freedman/For The Daily Gazette)

Periodically, too, student groups participate in concerts with local groups. On January 22, the Niskayuna vocal group Ladies First will perform with the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra.

Both districts invite noted musicians to work with specific ensembles. At Shen this has included noted jazz performers like Mark Vinci, Eric Marienthal and Denis DiBlasio. At Niskayuna, they’ve hosted SUNY Purchase’s jazz band, the Potsdam Brass Quintet, and string players from SUNY Fredonia.

Students enthusiastic

Talking to some of the students validates the positive atmosphere at both schools.

“I love Niskayuna. There are so many opportunities to play and the faculty is really dedicated,” said violinist Kalyana Duggal, a senior, who plays with the school’s symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra and the pit orchestra for the school’s musical theater productions. “I’ve been playing since I was in third grade.”

To add to her musical activities, Duggal gets together with other students to play chamber music in area nursing homes.

“Music is definitely a big part of my life. It’s my favorite of all my activities,” she said. “But I think that in college I’d major in a science and minor in music.”

Her stand partner in the chamber orchestra is violinist Samantha Liu, a junior, who also plays with the Empire State Youth Orchestra.

“I’ve been playing since first grade. I had a friend in pre-school who started playing violin and I thought it really cool,” Liu said. “I like Niskayuna because there’s a symphony orchestra here — not all schools have one, and there are a lot of passionate musicians.”

The Shenendehowa High School Orchestra performs during a past holiday concert. (Gazette file photo)

The Shenendehowa High School Orchestra performs during a past holiday concert. (Gazette file photo)

Liu wanted to perform more so she co-founded Artists in Music, a chamber music group that plays for seniors. She, too, wants to continue on with music in college but, she said, she’d rather keep it as a hobby than pursue it as a career.

At Shen, violist Sarah Nichols, a junior, who plays with the chamber orchestra, is already looking seriously into music schools.

“My parents aren’t musical although my dad is a connoisseur of classic rock,” she said with a laugh. “But music is, of course, a big part of my life. I chose viola in fourth grade because it was the only instrument I’d never heard of.”

Besides playing at her church, what she likes best about Shen is that students can choose which level they want to be involved with.

“There are auditioned groups and non-auditioned for those less serious,” Nichols said. “The auditioned groups are at a higher level.”

Versatile junior

Anne Moruzzi, junior, has an unusual versatility. She began alto saxophone in grade school, added bassoon in ninth grade, doubles on oboe in wind ensemble, and plays tenor saxophone in jazz band.

“Teachers have always been supportive of me doing more instruments and the program is broad and all encompassing,” Moruzzi said, “Music has grown on me through middle school and now in high school. I’m thinking of making music a career.”

She also plays bassoon in ESYO, but she especially looks forward to school each morning because her first course is wind ensemble.

“It’s a great way to start the day. It’s not like a class,” she said.

Up to as many as ten students each year from both districts go to music school and even into a career in music. Many achieve much success.

Among the Niskayuna alumni who stand out are: violist Jonathan Chu (Class of 1999), the assistant principal violist with the St. Louis Symphony; Dominick Fallacaro (Class of 2004) who produced the 2016 Grammy winning children’s album “Home”; percussionist James Benoit (Class of 2004), a member of the Sarasota Opera Orchestra and the marimba soloist with the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra last season; and trumpeter Anthony Bellino (Class of 2010), who plays with The President’s Own Marine Band.

At Shen, many of the alumni come back to teach. Among them are Brian Carucci (Class of 1997), who directs all of Shen’s high school bands, and Timothy Antonacci (Class of 2006), who was hired just this year as a music teacher in the district’s middle school.

Other notable grads are flutist Amy Carrol (Class of 1992), who plays with the Claflin Hill (MA) Symphony; Kayla Fraser (Class of 2012), a music teacher in the Hudson Falls Central School District; and John Prylo (Class of 1997), band director for the Schenectady City School District.

Niskayuna High School

• Two orchestras

• Two bands

• Two jazz ensembles

• Five choral groups

• 77 string players, 130 wind players, 200 singers

Shenendehowa High School

• Three orchestras

• Five bands

• Three jazz ensembles

• Five choral groups

• 271 singers; 179 in orchestra; 246 in band; 81 in jazz

• Also, 140 students are in more than one music class; 26 special needs students in three music sections; 39 students in music theory