Before the pandemic, it was common to see our day school community out and about, exploring the Bay Area on field trips, participating in occasional weekday concerts and rehearsals offsite, heading to the Mills College pool for our weekly swimming unit in PE, or – a favorite – trooping down to Piedmont Avenue for a brunch of tasty crepes and a math lesson in estimating costs, splitting bills, and calculating tips. Slowly but steadily, off-campus adventures are becoming part of our routine again, and we couldn’t be happier.
On Friday, October 21, we performed our first school visit concert since the fall of 2019. After routine morning classes and lunchtime, our boys changed into their “slip shot” uniforms – a simple performance outfit consisting of a crisp new blue polo embroidered with the PBA logo, black dress slacks, shoes, and socks, and a black belt. Next they filled their water bottles, grabbed their music bags, loaded our portable keyboard, extension cord, and other supplies into Mr. Brown’s car, and traveled to Joaquin Miller Elementary School to perform for their third, fourth, and fifth grade classes.
Although we had to put them on hiatus during the pandemic, school visits have long been an essential part of our program. Frequent short, local concerts give all of our students – from the youngest members of the training choir to the most experienced varsity countertenors – valuable performance experience with minimal disruption to other parts of our program. Observers who see our students transform from a mob of basketball-crazed fiends into a combed, polished arc of choristers calmly warming up their voices often ask us how we teach them to make such quick transitions, and the answer is that we give them frequent opportunities to practice. In addition, every student on a school visit has a gig job to do – usually an item to carry and keep track of while we travel to and from our destination. Attending to these responsibilities, along with remembering their water bottles and music bags and caring for their uniforms, gives the students valuable practice for our summer tours.
In addition, school visits provide valuable outreach for PBA. Our afterschool choirs are an enormously important part of our program; PBA thrives when Prelude, Minstrels, Intermezzi, Cantori, and Sorella are bursting at the seams. At each school visit, we ask the principal for permission to hand out postcards to the children in the audience, and it’s common for some of these students to enroll in our afterschool choirs. With our overall enrollment still rebounding post-pandemic, school visits are more vital than ever as a way to make sure our name and our boys’ beautiful voices are known in our community.
On Monday, October 24, we headed out once again, this time to see the Diego Rivera’s America exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. Faculty members Carmen Martinez, Joe Imwalle, and I chaperoned the students via BART. We practiced traveling in an organized double line, navigating the BART stations, using Clipper cards, and keeping track of our belongings on the train. Our head boy, Kai, and our two newly-appointed lead boys, Dresden and Enosh, showed amazing leadership skills keeping the group together and assisting the faculty at every stage of the process. When we arrived in the city, we ate a picnic lunch at Yerba Buena Gardens and then played in the Moscone Playground before heading to the museum for our noon reservation. In the museum, many of the students commented on the thoughtful, troubled faces of the human figures in Rivera’s paintings, as well as on the juxtaposition of what seemed like incongruous images: a smiling bride carrying a skull, a wedding ring on the end of a dagger, an Aztec sacrifice being carried out in the backdrop of a modern industrial scene. “What does it mean to call Rivera a social artist?” Ms. Martinez asked the students after we exited the exhibit. “Can art be political? Can it change the way people think and act? What do you think Rivera wanted to inspire people to do?”
Good questions. At PBA, moving back and forth between stillness and movement – the stillness of attentive listening, of choir performance, of lingering with a book or writing assignment in counterpoint to the movement of recess and P.E. games, of carrying and lifting and walking all together, of collaborating and building and learning actively together – is a regular part of our overall sense of balance. These two back-to-back school days of travel and movement felt like a natural counterpoint to the stillness of distance learning that’s still so fresh in many of our minds. As artists and as people, we need both. We need time for contemplation and peace, but the natural result of this introspection will often be a call to action. Our students are remarkably aware of the forces at work in the world, of the way money and power and privilege and hard work and countless other forces shape our lives. And for me, one of the sweetest parts of our two days on the road was the hour after we returned, when we recovered in the courtyard from our walk back to school, talking about Rivera’s paintings and discussing Ms. Martinez’s questions as we sipped from our water bottles and petted our favorite neighborhood cat, Tina, enjoying some quiet moments before theory class began.