Dispatches from Incarnation Center – Issue Two

 

A Letter from the Head of School, Amy Francisco

As I walk my dog around the fields and forests of Incarnation Center every morning, I have been astonished by the changing colors of the leaves. Having grown up in New England, the fall colors are certainly not new to me. This year, however, I find myself noticing the bursts of color as a single tree turns from tan to deep scarlet, seemingly overnight, and suddenly stands apart from all of its neighbors. I see, each day, how the same copse of trees across the lake has deepened and changed in sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic ways. What an appropriate backdrop these trees provide for the transformational work our germ-sharing pod has accomplished over these last few weeks. All of us who have taken part in it leave this experience different people than we were when we began. For myself, I leave with a reinvigorated sense of purpose, hope, and faith. Our entire school community has become more closely interwoven and more deeply interconnected than ever before, sustained and prepared for whatever this year unlike any other throws our way in the coming months.

Watching the seasons turn in our beautiful, temporary home, I am struck by how appropriate it is that each school year begins with this autumnal transformation. The coming of autumn this year feels like a particularly potent reminder of the growth and change that children constantly experience, and of their infinite capacity for renewal. Over our time together at Incarnation Center, I have watched the boys experience so many triumphs and joys, both big and small: the sixth grader who has been promoted into the semi-chorus and won his first choir MVP for a service; the self-proclaimed seventh grade “nonreader” who has been so hooked by his book for English class that he is reading it during his free time; the fourth grader who stopped several eighth graders’ shots on goal in the House soccer games; the fifth grader who said to his roommates at night that all of his classmates were his best friends since they spent so much time having fun together; and the eighth graders who overcame the nerve-wracking challenge of serving as cantors at our lakeside Wednesday evening Compline services. These sparks of joy give us the passion and purpose that drive everything we do as a community of teachers and learners.

I am so grateful for all of the courage, commitment, and communal spirit on display each and every day in this brief window of time together, and I am so proud of how much the boys have grown as musicians, students, and people in such a short span. Not only are they singing, they are sounding much like they did in March as they tackle new and challenging music for each of our three weekly services. Not only are they attending school, they are throwing their all into it, and taking it seriously despite their unorthodox surroundings. Not only are they spending time playing and living with each other, they are demonstrating their kindness, goodness, and brotherly love for one another each and every day. The Saint Thomas Choir School is always a special place to teach and to learn, but this time at Incarnation Center has revealed the especially remarkable heart of the school. This experience, just like our school, is truly one of a kind. Thank you for the support, hard work, and constant faith that has made it possible.

 

A Letter from the Director of Music, Dr. Jeremy Filsell

As our final weeks in rural Connecticut, Incarnation life for the boys and faculty alike had settled into a neat rhythm. The boys remained happy and healthy and continued to rejoice visibly in each other’s company. It was wonderful to see inter-grade relationships develop as this unique brotherhood grows and thrives. While we investigate ways in which we can operate as a school and choir back in New York in the future, we give thanks for having had this wonderful time in Connecticut. From my own musical standpoint, it has been so gratifying to help nurture the boys’ singing, in this fourth week, back to the standard and communicability where I feel we left off last March. It took four intensive weeks to get to this musical point, but it is heartening to realize that these things can be restored. It is my hope and prayer that we are back together at church before too long.

The boys have learnt much new music together at this time (including a Mass setting I wrote for them in August – a Missa in tempore enim pestlilencia!), and the upgrades in concentration and skill level have been tangible. We have so enjoyed singing in the space at St. James, accompanied by the remarkable instruments on loan to us from Steinway and Viscount. Members of the faculty have helped refine our video capabilities recently too, so, with luck, there will be good content to remind ourselves in the coming months of what was.

The challenges of running the church’s music remotely, as well as the return of the Gentlemen of the Choir to singing services at Saint Thomas, have meant that I needed to return to New York after our fourth week at Incarnation. Thus, the boys have finished working for these final two weeks with my marvelous colleagues Mr. Haigh and Mr. Quardokus, enjoying being musically harangued by a different face for a change! We are all so grateful for having had this unusual opportunity for the boys to continue their musical, academic and social life.

 

 

A Letter from Ms. Christine Hruska, Director of Studies and English Teacher

As John Muir, a passionate supporter of the National Parks once said, In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” Having visited and hiked at many of our national parks, I have found truth in this sentiment. With this thought in mind, I thought we might be able to capitalize on our setting at the Incarnation Center and use our poetry mini-unit as a way to work on learning to write texts that examine a topic and convey an idea. Being able to use outdoor space as an extension of our classroom has given the boys a unique opportunity to commune with their beautiful surroundings. Seventh grade boys took part in a nature walk during their English class, armed with their journals and a writing implement. They were asked to remain as quiet as possible as I brought them to three different locations around the camp with the purpose of observing nature and paying close attention to their five senses. The boys were encouraged to consider how each space might feel to them on an emotional level. Taking the task seriously, the boys began filling up pages with notes at each stop. Over the next several days, the boys worked to produce a clear and coherent paragraph rich in description and imagery, with the goal of conveying to an audience the experience they had. Next, the seventh graders played with language, style, and poetic elements as they pulled poems from their paragraphs. The results are simply beautiful and reflect their experience as well as their dedication to the craft of informational writing in the form of poetry.

Academic rigor and accountability are abundant at Incarnation. Teachers and students continue to make good use of our time together to form strong academic foundations and trusting working relationships. The idea of coming to Incarnation to teach, work, live, and sing together seemed fantastical in the planning stages, yet as I look at the accomplishments of the students in their studies and the dedication of the teachers to create robust curricula, I have to agree with John Muir once more in that, “the power of the imagination makes us infinite.”

 

 

Seventh Grade’s Nature-Inspired Poetry:

A Fall Day
by Will (NY)

A gentle storm brushing up against my skin
The tall brown oak tree with its rough bark and the endless light blue sky marking their limit
Vines and moss energetically scaling up the top where too many branches block the growth
Acorns crashing against the ground
It was a beautiful sight showing the death of nature
I felt like I was lost in the beauty of life in the forest

 

Tranquility
by Fernando (NJ)

Total tranquility was in the air; you could
sense the calmness by looking at the water
The water was so still, and
the wind was moving the water towards the right
It was warm and hot on land but freezing cold in the water
And you rarely saw ripples in the water
The air was still, and the breeze was calm
The lily pads were surrounding the dock,
and they were all crowded, talking to one another
right above the water’s surface
when I looked at the water
the tree’s reflection was visible to me
And if you listened closely the
only thing you heard was a chickadee
In the distance, chirping; chirping
almost as if they were singing.

 

Dying Beauty
by Max (NY)

The water is like glass
The occasional tweet of a bird echoes off the rocks
. . .
The beautiful leaves dying off their tree
The mile-long river looks like it has no end
You can see the dam through the thin branches
The reflection of trees in the still lake stands out in the sun
The boats lightly tap each other to the rhythm of the breeze
A red tree hangs over the lake like fire on water
There is a slight whistle to the wind that makes the air feel alive.
And when you wait a minute you are swept from all of your stress and emotions
Almost as if the world is there for your comfort
Ommmmmmmmmm

 

Nature Walk
by Wells (MA)

Everything is calm, you could only hear the crickets chirping and the trees swaying in the wind.
The water is clear and desolate, unrippled.
As a branch fell from a tree that was the only other sound.
I heard a bird start to chirp its first song of the day, and the trees turning all the colors of fall, the royal golden yellow, and the melancholy brown.
The air is clean and the smell is hardly noticeable among the trees and dirt.
I felt at peace there looking at the reflection the trees cast on the water, and as the trees swayed and the wind whistled all was good.

 

The Tranquil Forest
by Mich (MA)

Human constructs are a stain to nature’s beauty
. . .
Let us find more beautiful natural sites
Let us feel the forest with our senses
Let us see the trees as they sway
. . .
Let us hear the singing of the birds and the chirping of the crickets
Let us feel the wind as it whistles through the air
. . .
Let us feel the ground as we follow our way
Let us know that we are part of the earth
Let us not sully the forest with our objects
Let us find peace in this forest
LATOM

 

The Beauty of Nature
by Harrison (TN)

The waterfront with the smells
Of wet tree bark and
River water. The trees like tall giants stuck in their place and
Small bushes by the flowing
Water soothing me and are
Making me calm. Lily pads floating
with calming purpose. The beautiful moss
on the trees, where the birds chirp
. . .
Oh,
The bountiful beauty of nature.

STCS Featured in New York Family Magazine

With all of the extraordinary things happening at STCS — from our residence at Incarnation Center to Chris Seeley’s appointment — on top of our stellar music and academic program, New York Family, the greater metropolitan area’s leading platform for parents, took notice.  Check out their excellent write-up here.

Music from Incarnation — Red Dragonfly, Kosaku Yamada arranged by Grayston Ives

As the boys continue to enjoy the unique experience of being able to sing safely and freely together, we wanted to bring you some of the music they are making.   Here is Kosaku Yamada’s Red Dragonfly, as arranged by Grayston Ives.  Composed in 1927 with lyrics from a poem by Rofu Miki, the song is a much-loved children’s song in Japan.  Filled with longing, the lyrics recall a red dragonfly seen by the speaker as an infant while being carried on an older sister’s shoulder.

Dispatches from Incarnation Center – Issue One

Dear Saint Thomas Community,

As you well know, our beloved Choir School has relocated to Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, Connecticut for the first six weeks of the school term. This newsletter is the first of three updates we are sending to keep you informed of the boys’ musical, academic, social, and spiritual progress. We thank you for your support and your continued prayers.

Your Pastor and Priest,

Carl

A Letter from the Head of School, Amy Francisco

“Come, labor on!” has been the theme of this spring, summer, and early fall for many members of the Choir School family. After several intensive months of planning, the Choir School successfully launched its six-week excursion to Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, Connecticut earlier this month. Following a two-week quarantine period in which every community member completed a symptom checklist, limited their activities to ones deemed safe by medical authorities, and completed a COVID-19 test, the faculty and staff arrived at Incarnation Center on September 10th.  We were accompanied by two full moving trucks of classroom materials, music supplies, temporary choir stalls, bookshelves, tables, faculty and staff belongings, and more!

We spent the next few days in our new environment preparing classroom, dining, chapel, and dorm spaces, and working to make the Incarnation Center feel like the Saint Thomas Choir School’s home away from home. Parents, some driving from as far away as Michigan and Tennessee, dropped their sons off on September 13th in a carefully orchestrated schedule to maintain social distancing.

Our first two weeks at Incarnation Center consisted of small cohorts for all classes and activities, consistent mask-wearing, dining at a distance, and choir rehearsals conducted with the choristers twelve feet apart. Despite the limiting, COVID-specific rules, the boys and faculty have proven to be a resilient and happy team. Regardless of the time spent apart, the boys jumped right back into classes, choir rehearsals, and socially-distanced fun with their friends and teachers.

Last Friday, we achieved a major milestone: our second round of COVID-19 tests came back negative for our entire community, and we were—at last—able to take off our masks and be socially un-distanced! When they heard the news, the students and teachers ripped off their masks, cheering, hugging, and jumping up and down with excitement. This outpouring was followed by the boys attending their first full choir rehearsal since mid-March and our first time breaking bread sitting shoulder to shoulder around a communal table.

Our time together at Incarnation has been a powerful reminder of the depth of our bonds with one another, and of how much we draw strength from each other. The joy we all feel at being able inhabit a space in which we can safely enter into communion and community with one another have made these first weeks a truly remarkable experience. In this era of COVID-19, in which so little feels normal, our time here provides a deeply needed oasis. Although our classrooms look different, with portable white boards and projectors on walls taking the place of the SmartBoards we are used to in New York City, and field trips to Broadway shows replaced by contemplative hikes through the autumnal foliage, the depth of the learning taking place and the connections being built between students and teachers is the same. I am grateful to the dedicated faculty and staff who have worked around the clock for the last month (at least!) to ensure the success of our shared life together at Incarnation, and to the loyal parents who have taken a leap of faith by continuing to entrust us with their children despite the pandemic raging on around us.

Working with nearly 30 middle school boys is a constant reminder of how much goodness, love, and happiness there is in this world, and an endless fount of hope amidst the chaos and uncertainty of the world around us. We are looking forward to a wonderful six weeks with one another, and to laying the foundation for a successful 2020-2021 school year and beyond.

After two weeks of careful social distancing, and with everyone testing negative
for Covid-19, students and staff alike took off their masks.

A Letter from the Director of Music, Dr. Jeremy Filsell

We are nearly at the end of our third week here at Incarnation Center in beautiful, remote and rural Connecticut. We have thus settled into something of a routine now, particularly so after two weeks of mask-wearing and social distancing before everyone’s second negative COVID tests allowed us to behave and interact – and perhaps most importantly, sing – with some sense of normality. And what a blessing that has been.

Others will comment on the way the boys have been able to work and play together again at this time (a joy to have observed), but musically they have also been able to sing together in a way they haven’t for seven months. Seven months in a 10 or 11-year-old’s life is a significant portion of time, a period when many things, both musically and indeed vocally, can easily be forgotten! This seems particularly so when the boys’ daily diet and the fulcrum around which their lives hitherto spun has been those musical demands. The irony is that, while academic classes have been made to work so well online by faculty and students alike, music-making cannot and the lockdown sadly denied the boys the musical and social interaction that is so much a part of being in this choir. To revive that corporate spirit here has been balm for the soul – certainly for mine and, I am sure, for theirs too. The energy and alacrity with which they have returned to their singing here has been palpable, and our collective tasks have not involved courting lesser expectations in musical standard than that which we try and offer back at Saint Thomas. That the boys have jumped back into their musical pursuits so hearteningly has been to their remarkable credit.

During the initial two weeks here, we worked at musical revision in individual year groups since we were unable to sing together in ‘quarantine’, and there were some rusty skills and voices in evidence! However, there was a tangible uptick in recollecting those latent skills which gave momentum and energy to preparing our first formal service together last week. How gratifying it was to sing the Mass and motets in St. James’ Centre here. Mo. Turner’s presiding and leading worship gave our offering (where the choir certainly outnumbered the congregation … comprised of our own staff/faculty alone!) a real sense of what we should have been doing in the glorious space of Saint Thomas’ Church. We are all aware of our privilege to be able to ‘get back on our feet’ in this way here at Incarnation.

The introduction of late-night Compline to our cycle of musical worship (held on Wednesday in the outdoor chapel, overlooking the lake) has allowed us to be a little less formal, and to encourage musical leadership by the 6th, 7th and 8th grade boys (with Head Chorister Quinn in charge) themselves. We will sing our first Choral Evensong here in St. James on Friday and again, will make our space resonate with sounds reminding us of our spiritual-musical home back in New York. It is such a joy to have the boys singing again, and we remain hopeful that the momentum we are gaining here can be transferred to confines made safe within the Choir School ‘ere long.

A Letter from Mother Turner

How can I keep from singing?….is one of the refrains I’ve been humming to myself of late, as the weekly pattern at Incarnation Center has taken shape and our lives have been filled with ordinary — and indeed extraordinary — moments that mark each day.

In the early days at Incarnation Center, I would regularly find myself in a beautiful, large, and brand new event space called St. James. At first it was a blank canvas until, gradually, it was arrayed with multiple artifacts and furnishings from home, Church, and the School Chapel.

As I would go to and from St. James each day, I began to hear the sounds of boys singing or humming on the way to lessons, to games, to dinner or while digging in the sand, almost everywhere — except the waterslide! Even with masks still on, it was as if their song had never left their souls, and both their range and tone seemed to grow in strength, in tandem with their daily practices.

Initially we heard faint music being sung by small groups rehearsing in unexpected places, all at a distance: scales on balconies, plain chant carrying across the fields and even the sound of anthems from the dining hall. Soon other familiar melodies started to emerge, as different grades practiced, all growing towards a great crescendo, as they sang all together once again for yesterday’s Sunday’s service, our first Eucharist together since the Spring. It was a milestone celebration of community, enriched by those who served and read, and who came to support the boys by their very presence. It was a joyful day. The first of many to come, for sure, as the choir now prepares to lead Evensong at St. James, our very own Saint Thomas “on location,” and Compline in the Chapel by the Lake, in the coming weeks.

I mentioned earlier the daily moments — ordinary and extraordinary — that mark my days here at Incarnation Center. I’d like to share one of the most memorable so far: Picture if you will the literal leaping for joy, as masks were laid aside in release of a virtual “life on pause” button. And now, since we became a “pod,” the boys can be alongside one another: learning, playing, eating, singing and worshiping together, and thus those ordinary, everyday things, absent from our communal life since March, are once again interwoven with gratitude and song.

Today it still feels a little unbelievable that this familiar song-filled rhythm of life has returned and from small beginnings, something new and beautiful is being re-discovered, in which we are truly Blessed.

Notes from Dr. Matthew Gilbert (Science Teacher at STCS for 15 years)

We gave up the steel and concrete of Manhattan for the bark and branches of the woods of Connecticut. Now nearly halfway through our time at school-away-from-school, we have adjusted nicely to the serenity of our surroundings while maintaining the seriousness of our academic and musical programs.

While the rest of the world adapts to distance learning and part-time, in-person instruction, we have the luxury of an environment in which chipmunks, squirrels, deer, hawks and frogs are our nearest neighbors, and masks and social distancing are already a distant memory. While watching the children enjoy the life we have here, it’s hard to imagine that this must end, and we will re-enter the world and once again help shoulder its burdens. This has been a tremendous gift, as we constantly remind the children, and we are doing our best to cherish it to the fullest.

 

We asked some of our 6th, 7th and 8th grade boys about their experiences so far.

Here’s what they had to say:

When you first heard the Choir School would be temporarily relocating to Incarnation Center for the Fall, what were your thoughts?

Gio (CT, 6th Grader): My first thought was, “Yeah! I get to see my friends!”
Jovon (NY, 6th Grader): I thought, “That’s cool that we’ll be at the place. At least we are all together!”

Leighton (NY, 8th Grader): I thought it would be fun, and I had loads of questions. I was also looking forward to it.

Is it different than you expected? How so?

Grayson (NJ, 6th Grader): It is a little different because I didn’t know that we would be using different buildings for classes, singing, and eating.

Wells (MA, 7th Grader): There have been more classes than I expected. For the first two weeks, there was less choir than there usually is, since we couldn’t all sing together, but now it feels a little more like normal.

What was arrival day like, when you first saw your classmates and your teachers?

Jovon: It felt really good, but also kind of normal. Even though it had been so long since we had seen each other, it felt like we were all still the same.

Leighton: Great, like always. A little awkward because it had been so long and we had to stay far apart, but it was extremely exciting to see all of my friends. I was also feeling a little sad to be leaving my family.

What is it like to sing standing 12 feet apart?

Gio: It was really hard to sing standing far apart. I like singing close together. Now that we can sing together again it has been really fun because the choir sounds better together.
Jovon: It felt good to be singing together again, and kind of normal to be singing, even standing far apart.

Wells: It was hard to adjust to not having the “surround sound” of the choir, but we got better at it. Now that we are back singing together, it has been great. It felt thrilling the first time we could stand close together like we usually would. My favorite rehearsals are always the first ones after we come back from a break, and this felt like an even more extreme version of that.

How is school at Incarnation Center different than it is in New York City? How is it the same?

Grayson: School here is very different because you get more free time and you have more freedom walking from place to place. It is similar in that we have the same classes with the same teachers, even though we are in different classrooms.

Jovon: It was weird having to wear masks for the first two weeks. Now that the masks are off, it is different because there aren’t all of the people around that there are in New York, and we have much longer walks between classes. Lots of things are also the same, though. It still feels a lot like normal school because we have the same teachers and classes.

What was the experience of taking your masks off and becoming a “pod” like?

Grayson: It felt very relieving to take off my mask.
Gio: It felt invigorating!
Jovon: It felt happy and freeing. Now it feels like we have lots of free space!
Leighton: It has meant that do a lot more singing.

Wells: It felt more like school then, and not like you had to remember to put your mask on all the time.

How does singing in the services at Incarnation Center compare with singing in the services on Fifth Avenue?

Grayson: The services are very different here because we sing with fewer people in the congregation. The acoustics aren’t the same as in the church either, especially when we sing Compline outside.

Wells: The services are a little shorter, which has been a change. Without the full, choir, though, the pieces are different, and we can’t sing some of my favorites.

What has your favorite part about/memory of your time at Incarnation been so far?

Grayson: My favorite part about being at Incarnation was when we got to take off our masks. It was hard to have to wear them around all the time, and when we took them off, we could finally sing as a choir again!

Wells: My favorite parts have been all of the time we spend at the waterfront—I love going down the waterslide and playing on the water trampoline—and the meals! It has been so great having Chef Heidi here with us and eating together again.

What’s it like going to school with 3 dogs?

Leighton: It has been AMAZING because they are fun and cute, and because it was my idea. I told Ms. Francisco last winter that we needed a dog to play with at school, and now we have three!

Wells: The. Best. It has been great to be able to play with them during free time or when we’re getting ready for bed. I also like when the dogs come wake me up in the morning: it’s much easier to get up that way!

 

 

A Closer Look at Life at Saint Thomas Choir School

Discover what life at Saint Thomas Choir School is like. Faculty and choristers describe everything from music and performance to academic classes to living with 30 brothers in the heart of New York City.

Now that you’ve had a closer look, come see us.

Driven by our commitment to our students and to offering an unparalleled education, we are relocating temporarily to a 740-acre campus in Connecticut for the first quarter of the academic year in response to COVID.
Our location may change, but our culture, our mission, and our musical heritage will carry on uninterrupted. Hear what faculty and students have to say about life at STCS.

 

And although our NYC campus is closed due to COVID, we intend to return as soon as it is safe to do so. We are conducting tours of our NYC campus via FaceTime and are currently accepting applications for grades 4 and 5 for the 2020-2021 academic year.  Arrange your tour today at admissions@choirschool.org.

Why STCS?

Founded in 1919, Saint Thomas Choir School, located in the heart of New York City, is one of three of its kind in the world, and the only one in the United States.

All of our students sing as treble choristers in the renowned Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys. We combine one of the most varied and demanding musical programs in the world with a robust academic curriculum, interscholastic sports, and fine arts education all within a familial community just steps from Central Park, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and The Museum of Modern Art.

At Saint Thomas, boarding isn’t part of the experience – it is the experience. You develop deep bonds through numerous shared experiences: family-style meals, sports, summer camp, an annual ski trip, and a capstone 8th grade trip, to name a few. It’s about becoming resilient, flexible and collaborative in a nurturing environment. It’s about living in and being part of the arts capital of the nation. It’s transformative, and at the end of your time here, you will see yourself in an entirely new way. Explore what life here is like

Tuition for 2020-2021 is $16,500, and admission is need-blind. We are also pleased to be able to meet 100% of our students’ financial need. Any boy who likes music is encouraged to apply.

A Glimpse of Chorister Life

What is life as a chorister at Saint Thomas Choir School like? Have a look!

Now that you’ve had a glimpse, come “see” us.

Although our campus is closed due to COVID, we are conducting tours via FaceTime and are currently accepting applications for grades 4 and 5 for the 2020-2021 academic year.  Arrange your tour today at admissions@choirschool.org.

 

Why STCS?

Tuition for 2020-2021 is $16,500, and admission is need-blind. We are also pleased to be able to meet 100% of our students’ financial need. Any boy who likes music is encouraged to apply.

Founded in 1919, Saint Thomas Choir School, located in the heart of New York City, is one of three of its kind in the world, and the only one in the United States.

All of our students sing as treble choristers in the renowned Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys. We combine one of the most varied and demanding musical programs in the world with a robust academic curriculum, interscholastic sports, and fine arts education all within a familial community just steps from Central Park, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and The Museum of Modern Art.

Whether it is leading services with music, performing in our annual concert series, ringing the opening bell on Wall Street, singing with pop stars at the tree lighting ceremony in Rockefeller Center, filming a television segment or going on tour, there’s always something meaningful on the horizon. Learn how you will develop and contribute your talents here. 

Message from Interim Head of School

June 4, 2020

Dear Saint Thomas Choir School Community,

I write to you today knowing that many within our community are hurting. Hearts are heavy with the weight of this past week’s events, as we reckon with the burdens of hatred, racism, and violence piled on top of a society stretched thin by the ongoing global pandemic.

In light of the recent protests and riots, I am reaching out to say that our thoughts and prayers go out to all members of our community spread across the country and the world, especially to those who may be feeling unsafe or at risk. We deeply hope that all of you are and continue to be well and safe as these events unfold. Our building and staff members are all safe.

Saint Thomas Choir School stands in solidarity with those seeking justice, and we pray for reconciliation, compassion, and healing for our community, our city, and our nation.

In hope and peace,
Amy Francisco

Launch of Head of School Search

We have launched the search for the new Head of the Saint Thomas Choir School. A search committee, with representatives from the church and the school (see below), has been formed and has begun its work under the leadership of Warden Kazie Metzger Harvey. Carney, Sandoe & Associates, a well-recognized consulting firm and one of the largest firms that focus exclusively on the educational sector, was selected to aid us in this process. Senior Consultant Bob Vitalo is actively engaged in assisting the search committee with its work. A detailed position description is available here: Head of School Position Description. The recruitment of candidates, both nationally and internationally, has commenced.  In the late summer/early fall, we will interview semi-finalists.  Finalists will visit and meet members of the school community early in the fall. Our goal is to have a selection and an appointment by October or November.

Please do not contact the Choir School directly about this appointment.  Instead, kindly reach out directly via email to Bob Vitalo:  robert.vitalo@carneysandoe.com

 

Preliminary Stages of the Search

We are in the first stages of a search for the new Head of the Saint Thomas Choir School. Even with all the change to life as we know it as a result of Covid-19, this update is to brief you as to the process which we will follow so that we can identify and hire the best possible Head of School. We want to be ready to move ahead as we enter our second century.

First, we would like to announce that Amalia Francisco has graciously agreed to serve as Interim Head until the summer of 2021. The school is fortunate to have Amy on staff and we are confident that the School is in excellent hands. Amy has our full support and we know that every member of the school community will be committed to providing any assistance she may need to be successful. As we commence the search for a new Head of School, Amy has informed the Choir School Committee and Vestry that she will not be a candidate so that her focus can remain solely on making sure that the next year and a half provides the best possible experience for the students and faculty. This will also allow her to be best placed to help with the transition to a new Head of School.

 

Search Committee Appointments

We are pleased to share with you the members of the Search Committee, who represent alumni, parents, faculty, staff, vestry, the music department, and an independent educator. Together, we will work diligently in the weeks and months ahead to conduct a thorough process according to the National Association of Independent School guidelines to identify the best candidate to lead The Choir School into the next decade.

  • Kazie Metzger Harvey, Warden, Chair of the Choir School Committee, Chair of the Search Committee
  • The Rev. Canon Carl Turner, Rector of Saint Thomas Church
  • Amalia Francisco, Interim Head of the Saint Thomas Choir School
  • Dr. Jeremy Filsell, Director of Music, Saint Thomas Church
  • Vance Wilson, Educator, Writer, Headmaster Emeritus, St. Alban’s School, Washington, DC
  • Rachel Segger, Parent ’15, ’19, ’23, Music Associate, Trinity on the Green, New Haven
  • Julia Babson Alling, Parent ’22, Annual Appeal Manager, Office of the Presiding Bishop
  • Pamela Lewis, Vestry Member, Retired Lead French Teacher, Hunter High School
  • Miriam Allman, Houseparent of the Saint Thomas Choir School
  • Aaron Primero, ’05, Alumni Association President, Choir School Committee Member

 

Search firm selected

After evaluating an impressive group of executive search firms, we chose Carney, Sandoe & Associates (CS&A) to partner with us in our Head of School search process. CS&A is a well-recognized consulting firm and one of the largest firms that focus exclusively on the educational sector. Through their offerings of leadership placement, strategic planning, and executive coaching for independent schools, they have developed an extensive network and meaningful connections with top talent worldwide.

We are excited to work with CS&A Senior Consultant, Robert Vitalo. Bob focuses on retained head of school searches, senior administrative searches, and strategic planning with boards and heads. With experience in elementary, single sex, Episcopal, and K-12 schools, Bob works with a wide range of schools on their leadership needs. Bob has been a frequent presenter at NAIS, NYSAIS, NBOA, and CASE.

Bob served as Head of School at The Berkeley Carroll School (NY) from 2006 to 2019. Prior to BCS, he served as Headmaster at Fairfield Country Day School (CT) and Head of School at Media-Providence Friends School (PA) where he also held roles as Assistant Head of School and Head Teacher of the Lower School. He also taught at Grace Church School (NY) and in New York City Public Schools. Bob has served on committees and boards for the New York State Association of Independent Schools, Connecticut Association of Independent Schools, and International Coalition of Boys’ Schools, among others.

Bob received his B.S. in education from New York University and an M.A. in psychology from Columbia University. He has served on the boards of independent schools, a charter school, and several child advocacy groups. Bob resides with his wife in New York City.

Questions about the search and referral of potential candidates can be sent directly to Bob at:

robert.vitalo@carneysandoe.com

 

The Search Process

Our collective responsibility as a Search Committee is to conduct a comprehensive national search and manage the process of nominating the next Head of School. We will strive to make this search as inclusive as possible, taking into consideration the input of many constituents while balancing community participation with respect for the privacy of candidates. This careful balance, along with a flexible schedule, will enable us to attract superior talent.

 

Timetable

Even working remotely, these next few months will be a busy time. While our consultant will not be personally meeting with faculty and staff, alumni, parents, and vestry, he will be conducting surveys and speaking directly to as many people as possible. The purpose of these interactions is to hear as many perspectives we can as to what the School community seeks in our next Head. To ensure that all voices are heard, we will send a confidential electronic survey to the Vestry, Choir School Committee, Faculty, current parent body, and Alumni Association. This will be a critical step in the process and we strongly encourage your participation if you are one of those constituent groups. Feedback received from these telephone conversations and electronic surveys will help us identify the qualities, skills and characteristics that the incoming Head of School should possess. As the COVID-19 situation may improve in the coming weeks and months, we will continue to explore all ways that school community members can have a voice.  Our consultant will use all this valuable input to prepare a position profile that will be used to formally recruit candidates. A detailed position description will then be posted on the church and school websites as well as CS&A’s. Recruiting begins in late spring, or as soon as possible, and goes into the summer. By late summer/early fall we will be interviewing semi-finalists. Finalists will visit the school and meet with members of the school community early in the fall. We are hoping to have a selection and appointment by October or November.

Given the Choir School’s strength and excellent reputation, we fully anticipate many talented candidates across the country will be attracted to this incredible leadership opportunity and vibrant School community. We have established a new search webpage where you can send comments and candidate recommendations. We will also post the position description there when available.

We truly believe that this will be an exciting and fulfilling process as we proceed into the next 100 years.

 

The Rev. Carl Turner

Rector, Saint Thomas Church

 

Kazie Metzger Harvey

Warden, Saint Thomas Church & Chair of the Choir School Committee

 

COVID-19 Response and Information

We are thrilled to announce that Saint Thomas Choir School will be opening the 2020/2021 school year with a temporary residence at the Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, CT!  Fresh air, a large, idyllic campus and most importantly, the ability to learn, sing, socialize and play together in the safest way possible.

We have been spending the last two weeks of our school year at camp at the Incarnation Center for decades.  Thus, it was a natural thought when we began our scenario planning for 2020/2021 to consider this familiar campus as a possible, temporary home for our school while we wait out the COVID crisis.

Our re-opening plan is predicated upon the idea of the school being a self-contained, germ-sharing pod in which the school will take a number of precautions at the beginning to establish the pod and then will be able to remove some of these restrictions, allowing the boys to play together, learn together, and sing together. We feel that, under the current pandemic conditions, this plan is be the safest way for us to bring our community back together in person, and will provide the best experience for our students and teachers.

We will also be able to provide a robust musical experience for the boys under Dr. Filsell’s direction, and plans are underway to establish a schedule that offers the choristers the opportunity to perform in several services each week for our pod-community in Connecticut under the oversight of a chaplain, helping the boys to stay connected to Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue and helping them to continue the tradition of musical excellence upon which the Choir School was founded over 100 years ago.

In formulating our plans, a Fall 2020 Scenario Planning Working Group was assembled of school administrators, faculty members, and medical personnel. The Working Group has been meeting once or twice each week since early May to discuss scenario planning. Members of the Working Group have focused on different areas of school life, and have spent hundreds of hours reading articles, studies, and governmental guidance; speaking with infectious disease experts, pediatricians, and school medical personnel; working with experts in risk management and in school legal issues; attending many webinars produced by NYSAIS, NAES, NAIS, OESIS, NATS, OneSchoolhouse, NEASC, and the Klingenstein Center; meeting individually with over fifteen heads of other independent schools; and meeting frequently with other key stakeholders in the Saint Thomas community. The goals of our planning are to be prepared to educate the students safely regardless of how the pandemic shifts, and to be able to provide a positive educational experience to our students consistent with our mission and our values.

All of the conversations generally during the COVID-19 crisis and particularly in planning for Fall 2020 have served as powerful reminders of how strong and resilient our community has proven to be, and of how lucky we are to have such a talented, committed group of educators and dedicated, engaged families and students.

We have divided the academic calendar into quarters for this upcoming year, and will re-evaluate the plan in advance of each quarter. After our time at Incarnation Center and a two-week vacation, we will either be transitioning back to New York City if health and testing conditions allow us to do so, or making a planned transition to distance learning.

As always, all of our plans throughout this pandemic are subject to change at any time: flexibility will continue to be our watchword as we monitor the ongoing medical developments, health conditions, and government requirements to make sure that we are keeping our community as safe as we possibly can.

Timeline of actions and decisions taken

March 2: The Choir School advised parents that it was closely monitoring the growing crisis, taking steps to reduce student exposure according to guidance issued by the New York City Department of Health and advised parents to be mindful of CDC travel restrictions when making Easter break travel plans. A letter and Frequently Asked Questions Guide from the New York City Department of Health with information about the coronavirus and general flu prevention measures was distributed.

March 10-15: Under the guidance of Interim Head of School, Amalia Francisco, faculty quickly developed and implemented a plan for distance learning using Zoom and Microsoft Teams in all subjects, including choir, voice, and instrument lessons.  All of the boys were instructed in how to use Zoom, including a full, practice day at school prior to the boys leaving to trouble-shoot any issues and  ensure a smooth transition.

March 15:  All students returned home, bringing their school-supplied laptops with them. Residential faculty and staff remain at the school and are following all protocols to remain healthy and safe. All other faculty and staff are working remotely.

March 17 and 18: Ms. Francisco hosted two online meetings with parents to present more information on the Choir School’s plan, give parents instruction in how to use the Zoom platform, and address any questions and concerns from parents.

March 18: Distance learning began with a full schedule from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm. All regular classes continue with both faculty and parents reporting a successful transition to virtual classrooms. Father Turner reiterated the Church’s commitment and ability to maintain the Choir School and the entire Saint Thomas community during this uncertain period and into the future.

March 20: Plans for virtual student recruitment begin to ensure that prospective students and their families can continue to move forward with their applications and auditions.

May 15: The Fall 2020 Scenario Planning Working Group, composed of Mrs. Wentling, Mrs. Allman, Dr. Gilbert, Ms. Hruska, and Ms. Francisco, began meeting weekly to talk through the different possible scenarios for Fall 2020. Our goal was to think through the number of different paths the pandemic might take over the next several months, and to prepare so that we are ready for whichever scenario we find ourselves in both in September and as the year carries forward. Always, we worked to keep the health and well-being of the boys and of our entire community at the center of our thinking. Throughout this process, we have come to realize that flexibility and nimbleness will need to be our watchwords as we move forward: with so much information changing so rapidly, we will need to be prepared to adapt to shifting circumstances, perhaps without much advance warning. By engaging in scenario planning at this stage, however, we prepared our school community to able to take a path that has already been at least roughly charted, and to move between such paths if necessary.

August 8: As a result of the current state of the pandemic and New York’s updated guidance about school reopening, the Choir School Committee, Vestry, and school and church leadership have decided that we will be opening the 2020/2021 academic year with a temporary residency at the idyllic Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, CT, where we will conduct all of our school activities for the first quarter of the academic year.

September 13: Following two weeks of social restrictions and a COVID test for faculty and students alike, we opened our school year with carefully a orchestrated schedule of students drops offs to ensure we continued to socially distance.  Thus began our germ-sharing cohort plans: separation from the outside world, small groups, mask-wearing, and a second round of COVID tests.

September 25: We did it!  After out initial two weeks of social distancing and a second round of negative COVID tests for our entire cohort, we received the all-clear to remove masks, eliminate restrictions and have a small slice of normal in the Connecticut woods.  The boys had their first full choir rehearsal without masks or distancing, and the joy at being able to sing together again after seven months was palpable.

We will continue to update this page and send out emails to all community members on changes to this fluid situation and appropriate responses for our community.

Alumni reflect on 100 years of Saint Thomas Choir School

A wonderful write-up by Egan Millard at the Episcopal News Service:

“That means the students’ experience is marked by intense and disciplined immersion in the rich Anglican choral tradition, singing at least five services a week in the church, as well as international tours, concerts with symphonies and unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Thomas Carroll (class of 1988, and the son of a 1945 graduate) remembers singing the world premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem Mass at St. Thomas Church in 1985 with Plácido Domingo and Sarah Brightman.”

Read “As the only choir boarding school in America turns 100, alumni reflect on its lasting influence” at Episcopal News Service.org

The Epoch Times: Noble Singing at Saint Thomas Choir School, 100 Years On

Lorraine Ferrier of The Epoch Times writes about “North America’s only choral boarding school”

“For the choristers, it’s not only about singing. It’s about personally holding themselves to the highest standards, having that reverence and professionalism. Jonathan believes it’s important to “set an example, whether kneeling or sitting, not talking, showing respect for whoever is [there], and showing that you really care about what you do and how you do it.”

Read “Noble Singing at Saint Thomas Choir School, 100 Years On” here

Listen Magazine: “A Musical Boarding”

Damian Fowler writes for Listen Magazine about “a particular kind of education” found at the Choir School:

“After rehearsal the boys attend classes, which include English, science, French, math, art and, of course, Individual music lessons. (Most of the boys play a musical instrument, too.) The boys also have a good amount of time to play sports and run around the gym or Central Park, which is a block away. But come 4:00 p.m., Tuesday to Thursday, the boys walk two-by-two down the street to Saint Thomas Church, don their scarlet cassocks and become choirboys singing Evensong with the full choir.”

Read the full article here (PDF).