PVPA music students hit high note, save trip

  • Head of the PVPA music department Frank Newton, left, shares a stage with his students at the Waterfront Tavern in Holyoke, Thursday. PVPA PHOTO

  • —PVPA STAFF

Staff Writer
Published: 4/1/2018 8:57:23 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — A long-anticipated five-day tour to a Virginia community by Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School music students nearly hit a sour note a couple of weeks ago.

That’s when the budding musicians found out that the money for the trip promised by former head of school George Simpson wasn’t available. But after a tumultuous year — Simpson was fired Feb. 26, just six months into the job, after being arrested on drug charges — the students banded together and successfully raised the money themselves.

“We’ve had a tough year this year and it has been something that has really helped bring all factions of the school together to create something great,” said Frank Newton, head of PVPA’s music department and the mastermind behind the tour. “The feeling right now is one of so much love and so much support from every corner from this music department.”

Simpson had told Newton the administration would fund the $40,000 cost of the trip in full. However, interim head of school Brent Nielson told Newton on March 20 that the school did not have the funds to send the students on the trip.

“I don’t think they understood when they canceled the tour how much it meant to everyone,” said Phoebe Lloyd, 17, a music and theater major. “One of the hardest things about it being canceled was seeing how hard it was for Frank.”

Newton sent an email to his students that evening explaining the dire situation. In a matter of minutes, momentum started building to save the trip.

“He wanted more than anything to give us this tour,” said Xavier Gionet-Svymbersky, 17, a junior music major. “He came in, he looked us all in the face and he told us the story, and it was really hard for him.”

Saving the trip

The next day, students wore purple in support of Newton, a teacher famous for the purple suit he wears to recitals, gifted to him by the first ensemble of students he taught rock and soul music when he started at PVPA. They assembled during lunchtime in the library, pushing the tables together, and started scheming ways to save their tour.

“They basically turned the library into a Jerry Lewis telethon,” Newton said. “They were on their phones, they were on their computers and everybody was looking under every rock and corner to find donations and sponsorships.”

They set up a Paypal account shared by the students, their families and friends online. Local businesses started donating to the cause, and quickly became some of the largest benefactors of the tour.

The deadline to reserve a rental bus was the next day, and within 24 hours of Newton sending the somber email, students and their families had raised about $2,500, according to Lloyd. In four days, they found enough money to send themselves to Virginia.

“They just jumped at it and refused to take no for an answer,” Newton said. “They refused to let this situation take something they believed in away.”

The entertainers decided to capitalize on their talents by hosting a series of last-minute shows to raise money, too. On Wednesday they performed at the Waterfront Tavern in Holyoke, and on Thursday a small group of students put on a show at Iconica Social Club in Northampton with all proceeds going toward their tour.

“I’ve never seen students work that hard in my life,” Gionet-Svymbersky said.

After the March 22 concert in Northampon, the students had raised around $25,000, according to a press release from the school, nearly all the money they will need to make the trip a reality. Last week, the faculty met to discuss the tour’s particulars, sacrificing some more costly aspects of the trip to bring the original $40,000 price tag down. The faculty then gave the music department the green light.

“I was worried when things were turbulent when everything was going on towards the beginning of the school year, but after so many months of silence on the matter I thought we had been fine,” Lloyd said.

The trip is a go

Sixty-four high schoolers will leave for the tour to Williamsburg, Virginia, on April 7. In the first two days they will perform at Busch Gardens and Dozier Middle School. On the third day they will teach and perform at the Waller Mill Elementary Fine Arts Magnet School, then again that evening at the Williamsburg Public Library.

Newton, who is from Williamsburg, not only booked the tour, he wrote and directed the production, titled “We Came to Play,” consisting of four acts for each of the music department’s four ensembles — rock and soul, pop rhythm and blues, a capella and jazz. Since early February, students have been meeting three times a week to choreograph and rehearse the performance.

“The performance is kind of a Vegas-style music variety show,” Newton said. “The message we are sending is that through music we can overcome all things.”

Every November, members of PVPA’s music department travel around the Pioneer Valley performing at local schools and public spaces. Last May, Newton had the idea to take the tour out of state for the first time.

He said the students kept his spirits up when it looked as if the trip would fall through.

“I was in a pretty dark place after it was canceled, and their energy and their fire and their drive, from the parents and the kids and also from the administration, kept me going,” he said.

Lloyd said that coming so close to losing their opportunity to travel, perform and teach was enough to make the students appreciate the experience that much more.

“We all worked our butts off to make it happen, and cried about it not happening,” she said. “You only love what you don’t have.”

After they return, the students will put on another local performance at the St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Belchertown on April 29.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.


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