In glee club, choir, musical theater, even radio drama podcasts, students at Sacred Heart Schools, a PK-8 Catholic, independent school in Chicago for students of all faiths, have ample opportunity to express themselves musically and theatrically. Middle school students can participate in advanced chorus to learn to sing in harmony, and students as young as first grade can engage in after-school individualized piano lessons.
Through Sacred Heart’s deep commitment to the fine arts, students gain more than music theory, octaves and scales — they get experience blending music with other forms of artistic expression, finding their voices and building confidence to last a lifetime.
“When I decided to go into teaching, my goal was to use music as a tool to help kids find a voice,” explains Justin Nixon, fine arts director at Sacred Heart. “It’s an internal message, but also a presence that gives them the means to go out into the world and express themselves. Music is a tool for these kids to find that mode of expression.”
Young voices blend performance with creative writing
Sacred Heart‘s fine arts department has a history of immersing students in artistic self-expression. In 2016, as students and faculty grappled with violence in the news, Sacred Heart’s middle school students studied the music of social change by learning songs from the civil rights, suffrage and war protest movements. Nixon asked his students to write a short creative piece to answer the question, “What do you want to say?” Overwhelmingly, Nixon says, students wrote about compassion and standing up against hatred.
“I was so moved by their work, I felt I had to honor their voices and how they express themselves,” Nixon recalls. He pulled the work together and set it to music as a song called Stand Up, which students have performed live on television.
A current project, three years in the making, is a creative adaptation of the fable of The Water Carrier, an ancient story shared across diverse cultures which fourth- through eighth-grade students are studying in a Theater Performance Workshop class.
“I love this fable and I shared the story with teachers who helped me develop curriculum to use the fable as a writing prompt,” Nixon says. “The next year, we shared the story with all of the kids and we spent a year engaging with the story and doing creative writing.” Nixon gathered the work just as the coronavirus shutdown started in the spring, and spent the summer developing a book and a musical based on the students’ work.
“Students had so many creative ideas of characters and settings that we turned into a larger story,” Nixon says. Originally designed to be a theatrical production, the project is now being explored as a film adaptation. Nixon admits he’s not a filmmaker but is teaching himself as he goes.
“This is the work that completely excites me, when kids get to see their work become something larger, and for them to be part of the creative process. It’s engaging and influential in their experience,” he says. Adapting to challenges also teaches students lifelong lessons in flexibility, Nixon says. “This is an important story of resiliency, that we won’t let the challenges we face stop us.”
Adapting to change is a lifelong skill
Although students are back in the classroom, in response to the pandemic, everyone was forced to adapt to singing virtually. Nixon says he pre-records music into a video, which he shares with students at virtual rehearsals. “They can hear me sing and direct them and they type questions into the chat box,” Nixon says. “If they are having trouble with a section, we talk it through.” They also collaborate through an a cappella app that creates a multi-layered track that students add their voices to, one by one.
Something new the students are digging into this year is radio theater, 1940s-style, with a radio script adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which students will perform and record as a podcast. “We are always trying to find new ways of engaging students, and this is an opportunity for actors who are self-conscious on the stage to act with less stress. It’s an entrance for them and maybe next year, they will be ready for the stage,” Nixon says.
This commitment to finding creative solutions reflects how Sacred Heart approaches challenges as an opportunity to learn. “We don’t let the situation stop us or determine our outcome. We move forward, regardless, and we never want to feel limited by anything, even a pandemic,” Nixon says. “The show must go on.”
Ultimately, performance at Sacred Heart Schools builds confidence, not just for the stage, but for everyday life. “Of course, we need to know math, science, English and writing, but also how to effectively present ideas to an audience, which is exactly what kids learn through the arts,” Nixon says. “Poise, presence and self-confidence are skills we use every day, even online. How else can you find your internal confidence to present yourself to the world?”