Finger Lakes students become stars - Catholic Courier

Finger Lakes students become stars

Albums by such popular young artists as Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers will probably be under many a Christmas tree this holiday season, but an album by students from six local Catholic schools may very well make its way there too.

Students from St. Francis-St. Stephen School in Geneva, St. Joseph School in Auburn, St. Mary School in Canandaigua, St. Agnes School in Avon, St. Michael School in Penn Yan and St. Michael School in Newark recorded the album “Learn! Live! Love!” during the 2007-08 school year. They did so with the help of well-known musicians Nancy and John Bryan, who belong to St. John the Evangelist Parish in Clyde.

“It’s really very beautiful,” said Elaine Morrow, principal at St. Francis-St. Stephen School. “It’s really quite exciting. The kids really enjoyed it.”

The project began early in the school year when Sister of St. Joseph Margaret Mancuso, assistant diocesan superintendent for curriculum and instruction, learned that Nancy Bryan, a Grammy-nominated musician, has helped students at a number of local schools record albums. After talking to the principals at the six schools, Sister Mancuso contacted Bryan and asked her to work on an album with the students. Much of the project’s cost was paid for by an anonymous donor, and the six schools paid for the balance with their own funds, she said.

The album contains songs that reflect what students were learning during the 2007-08 school year, Sister Mancuso said. For example, third- and fourth-graders at St. Mary wrote and sang a song about vertebrates because they were studying the animal kingdom. The school’s second- and fifth-graders wrote a song titled “Destination” because they were learning about maps and directions, and their peers at St. Michael School in Penn Yan wrote about the universe and the solar system.

Sister Mancuso said she was drawn to the project partly because it encouraged the integration of music with other subject areas.

“I truly believe in art being integrated with all we do. It was an opportunity to tie curriculum in with music, but also for the children to appreciate … a bit about how you make a song,” she said.

Fourth- through eighth-grade students from St. Francis-St. Stephen wrote a song titled “What Would Jesus Do?” because teachers and administrators often use that phrase when encouraging students to make the right decisions, Morrow said.

“We just felt that since it was a Catholic school the very best thing we could do was to make it a religious theme,” she said of the song.

Bryan began visiting the six schools in October 2007, coming to each school at least four times before the project was finished. During the first session at each school Bryan taught the children about song form, using as examples some of the songs she’s written for Walt Disney Records. She taught them about verses and choruses before encouraging the students to start throwing out ideas of possible words, phrases and sentences to use in their song.

Bryan emphasized the importance of imagery in songwriting, and told students to think of words that would help listeners really see and feel the situation they were writing about. The students embraced this idea, she said, and came up with great lines like, “Under a dark and stormy sky,” which the Geneva students used to describe the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion.

After the students finished writing their songs, she took the lyrics home and worked out a melody to accompany each one. She and her husband then arranged the melodies and made vocal guitar or vocal piano recordings of thess melodies in their home studio. They then left these recordings with the students, who practiced singing their lyrics with the recordings until the next time Bryan visited them.

The next time Bryan mets with the children was recording day. The students formed several different groups and took turns recording their parts of the song many times.

“For one song it could take a half day or a day, it just depends,” Bryan said.

This was an eye-opening process for the students, Morrow said.

“They had no idea what goes into putting music to disc,” she said. “What they discovered was there isn’t one take, there isn’t two takes, there’s maybe 15 takes. Most of them came away saying … ‘If it takes this much work to do one song, what must it be like to put out a CD that has 10 songs?”

The students usually get very excited when they see the microphones and recording equipment, but they take the process very seriously nonetheless, Bryan said. After the students record their vocal tracks Bryan takes the recordings back to her studio, where she and her husband mix in the instrumental tracks to produce the final recordings.

Students typically love working with Bryan because they get to be creative, and they think recording an album is exciting, she said.

“It makes them feel like pop stars,” Bryan remarked.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about “Learn! Live! Love!” contact one of the six schools involved with the project. Contact information for these schools may be found on the diocesan Web site at

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